“Mean Girls”

Mean Girls

By Brian Pope

It’s not hyperbole, nor am I ashamed to tell you that, since first watching the film in 2004, I have fantasized about seeing the musical adaptation of Mean Girls. Everything about the movie from Tina Fey’s script to the costumes to that one scene when the photocopied pages of the Burn Book magically stick to the walls spoke so profoundly to 13-year-old me. And it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life up until that point.

Ever since then, I’ve spent 80% of my time talking about Mean Girls and the other 20% praying for someone else to bring up Mean Girls so I could talk about it more. Coincidentally, my next notable cultural obsession as a tween became musical theater. I couldn’t help but be consumed by the thought of what a Mean Girls musical would look, sound, and move like.

It took over a decade, but finally Mean Girls premiered on Broadway in 2018. Now, it has landed in Pittsburgh as it paints the country pink on its first national tour. I don’t know if this qualifies as a full circle moment exactly, but for me, it’s an incredibly special one.

The world of Mean Girls was meant to be mined for musical comedy gold from the start. Home-schooled math savant Cady moving to America from Africa to interact with kids her own age for the first time. Regina, Gretchen, and Karen (a.k.a. The Plastics), a three-part harmony of glamorous villainy, inviting Cady to have lunch with them with obvious ulterior motives. Art freaks Janis and too-gay-to-function Damian convincing Cady to weaponize her access to the clique to bring them down.

If that story doesn’t cry out for a Busby Berkeley-style dance break with cafeteria trays, a tap number about technological impulse control, and a feminist Halloween anthem, what does? Those are just a few of the delights the creators of this musical have in store for those fanatics in the audience like me as well as anyone not as well versed in the “You can’t sit with us!” and “Danny DeVito, I love your work!” of it all.

Here, Fey elevates and updates the wicked wit and snark that made her screenplay an instant classic. Using Janis and Damian as narrators in an unnecessary framing device is a bit of a crutch, but the way she manages to humanize some of these titular characters without fully redeeming them is remarkable and refreshing. Queen Bee Regina learns a lesson when her maniacal machinations land her in a spinal halo, but as she brilliantly remarks on what the world would think of her if she was a man, we learn she has not lost any of the fearsome grit that identifies her character.

The Broadway-pop score from composer Jeff Richmond (husband to Fey and also behind the music of her TV hits) and lyricist Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde The Musical) is as much of a pure delight. Even when too saccharine (“Stars”), their songs are always undeniably uplifting (“I’d Rather Be Me”) and cleverly whimsical (“Apex Predator”).

No element of the production would be as successful, though, without the trademark high energy and (in the best way) slick direction/choreography of Casey Nicholaw. Along with the wall-to-wall, floor to ceiling LED screen set by Scott Pask, Finn Ross, and Adam Young, Nicholaw’s work makes Mean Girls the most brisk and vibrant 150 minutes in a theater that 150 minutes in a theater could be.

Having seen the phenomenally talented original Broadway cast last year, I had a hard time not comparing them to what I was watching on stage at the Benedum Center. Mariah Rose Faith (Regina), Megan Masako Haley (Gretchen), and Samuel Gerber (Understudy Damian, who went on this Tuesday) don’t quite live up to the heights of their Tony-nominated counterparts, but they all have their moments. Danielle Wade (Cady) and Jonalyn Saxer (Karen) level up from understudying their respective roles in New York to adding lovely new vocal and comedic flourishes to them here. Often though, in a trio of extremely different adult female roles, Gaelen Gilliland steals each and every scene she shares with them.

Among its many distinctions, Mean Girls holds the dubious honor of being tied with The Scottsboro Boys as the losing-est production in Tony Awards history. Both received 12 nominations in their years of eligibility, but did not win a single category.

Some might see that as a value judgment on the quality of Mean Girls as a musical. To that notion, I say, “Whatever, I’m getting cheese fries.”

Mean Girls plays at the Benedum Center through November 3. For tickets and more information, click here.

Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.

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