The Mercury News Weekend
`Mean Girls' gets an `A' for not copying the movie
Based on the iconic 2004 film comedy, the musical more than stands on it own
High school can be hell, and right now BroadwaySF has two touring musicals in San Francisco about the difficulty and the ethics of trying to fit in.
“Dear Evan Hansen” opened at the Orpheum Theatre last week, and now, just a few blocks away at the Golden Gate Theatre, “Mean Girls” has made it to San Francisco for the first time.
The 2004 movie about popular cliques as predators in the high school ecosystem quickly became beloved, thanks in no small part to the wit of screenwriter Tina Fey, who also plays the wisecracking math teacher in the film.
Fey also wrote the book for the 2017 stage musical that's now come to town after its hit Broadway run, and it too is tremendously witty, with some great new gags along with some favorites from the film.
What's impressive is how well the story lends itself to becoming a musical, with some hilarious and awfully catchy songs with music by Jeff Richmond (Fey's husband) and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, co-songwriter of the “Legally Blonde” musical.
With few exceptions, the songs are delightfully memorable, in a fun mixture of styles giving each character a kind of signature sound, accompanied by lively choreography by director Casey Nicholaw.
English Bernhardt makes an upbeat, plucky heroine as Cady, a new arrival who's been homeschooled in Kenya and takes on making sense of high school social politics as a fascinating challenge, and of course inevitably goes too far.
Nadina Hassan emanates cool command as queen bee Regina George, strutting and preening with a blasé air of calculated indifference. The fact that her sultry songs are reminiscent of classic James
Bond themes amusingly adds to her mystique.
At Wednesday's opening, there were three understudies in major roles and they were all terrific. Substituting for Jasmine Rogers, Mary Beth Donahoe is hilariously high strung and endearingly desperate to please as Regina's sidekick Gretchen Wieners, with a beautifully touching song laying her insecurities bare. Megan Grosso also is wonderfully comical as their blithely dim-witted friend Karen, usually played by Morgan Ashley Bryant.
Filling in for Lindsay Heather Pearce, Adriana Scalice is a strong grounding presence as misfit artist Janis, observing the goingson with sardonic amusement and a touch of bruised bitterness.
Eric Huffman exudes irrepressible exuberance as Damian, Janis' best friend, a musical theater geek that she describes as “almost too gay to function.” Damian's priceless old-school Broadway song-and-dance numbers are some of the highlights of the show.
Cady's first friends at the school, Janis and Damian, double as occasional narrators, framing the story as if it's a priceless bit of school gossip you might have missed when you were away on a semester abroad or something.
A lot of the large ensemble play multiple roles, but
Heather Ayers does impressive triple duty as the wry math teacher, as Regina's try-hard “cool mom” and as Cady's more lowkey mother. Lawrence E. Street has some great comic timing as the uncomfortable principal and Adante Carter is likeable and down-to-earth as the friendly hunk that Cady falls for.
Finn Ross and Adam Young's video design vividly brings Scott Pask's simple but versatile set to life with a mixture of impressively realistic and totally fanciful backgrounds. Gregg Barnes' costumes offer a great combination of varied teen fashions, amusing Halloween costumes and priceless animal
getups in a sort of “Lion King” pastiche.
Some of the film's memorable moments aren't in the musical, because something had to make way for all those songs. Some characters are more thinly drawn simply because we don't see as much of them, while others, such as Gretchen, feel more fleshed out after we hear them sing their innermost thoughts.
It may not be the instant classic that the movie was, but “Mean Girls” feels nicely true to the original while not just recycling its beats and jokes. Just as its characters have to learn to be themselves, the musical does its own thing, and what it does is pretty darned entertaining.