REVIEW: “MEAN GIRLS” — Segerstrom Center for the Arts
MARCH 8, 2023—COSTA MESA
Cady Heron may have grown up on an African savanna, but nothing prepared her for the wild and vicious ways of her strange new home: suburban Illinois. How will this naïve newbie rise to the top of the popularity pecking order? By taking on The Plastics, a trio of lionized frenemies led by the charming but ruthless Regina George. But when Cady devises a plan to end Regina’s reign, she learns the hard way that you can’t cross a Queen Bee without getting stung.
That perspective was transformed into a cult film called “Mean Girls,” written by Tina Fey, her first box-office gold screenplay, based on “Queen Bees and Wannabees,” a nonfiction book about the perils of popularity by Rosalind Wiseman and directed by Mark Waters. Starring a young Lindsay Lohan as an outsider who insinuates herself into a high school “in” crowd and loses her identity, the film balanced every nerd revenge fantasy possible with sunny life lessons, and still lives on as a mood-elevating cult favorite.
The musical version opened on Broadway in April 2018 at the August Wilson Theatre and closed in 2020, garnering twelve Tony nominations. The acclaimed musical tour currently features English Bernhardt as Cady Heron, who, having been homeschooled in Kenya by her biologist parents, becomes a student at a public high school in a Chicago outlying community, and is so freaked out by this unfamiliar jungle that she eats her lunch hiding in a stall in the girl’s bathroom.
Rescued by a group of outcasts, she soon joins up with the trio of “Plastics,” the clique that rules the school, led by teen queen alpha leader, Regina George (played here with hot coolness by Nadina Hassan), whom Cady recognizes from her study of the Kenyan jungle as the “apex predator.” Also featured are the insecure, gossipy Gretchen Wieners (Mary Beth Donahoe at this performance through Mar 10th, with Grace Romanello in the role Mar 11th/12th, and Jasmine Rogers finishing the run from Mar 14th-19th), and the stupendously dense Karen Smith (an appealing Morgan Ashley Bryant). In her quest for popularity, Cady winds up endorsing the group’s crushing elitist behavior, and betrays her original friends – until she wises up at the end and joins the math team.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Particularly impressive are the duo portraying the school’s amiable outcasts — Eric Huffman as “almost too gay to function” Damian and Lindsay Heather Pearce as deadpan goth-girl Janis Sarkisian. Both of these “art freaks,” as they’re identified in the bestiary of high school cliques, function as the narrators and social commentators for the audience, and the initial guides for Cady.
Author Tina Fey, creator of the dearly departed television series “30 Rock,” “Saturday Night Live” alumna, sometime movie star and best-selling essayist, has one of the most appealing satirical sensibilities on offer. Her wit is both caustic and polite, stinging and soothing at once, though it’s the sharpness that lingers afterward.
Ms. Fey’s protracted incarnation onstage — which features songs by Jeff Richmond (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and Legally Blonde's Nell Benjamin, with direction and choreography by Book of Mormon's Casey Nicholaw — retains many of the oft-quoted catchwords and quips of the original. When early in the show, a character hopefully says “fetch” (a neologism for really cool), the audience is chuckling before she lands that final “ch.”
That this “Mean Girls” performance this past Tuesday night at Segerstrom Center for the Arts takes place (still at an Illinois high school) almost 19 years after the film has proved no obstacle to the audience either. After all, social media only increases opportunities for social climbing and subversion. Scott Pask’s set, Gregg Barnes’s costumes and Finn Ross and Adam Young’s video designs still render sociological exactitude with flat comic-strip brightness.
Even before the show started, the audience was treated with the onstage video wallpaper of annotated yearbook photographs. Representing the title characters’ so-called “Burn Book,” which figures in a crucial plot point, these are images of class portraits decorated with cruel phrases like... “if cornflakes were a person” and “he only made the team because his mom slept with the coach.”
Some of the freshest musical numbers like “Revenge Party,” “Fearless” and Act II’s “World Burn,” a scintillating take on revenge by Ms. Hassan’s Regina (a recent MT grad making her National Tour Debut with “MG.”) who hits and holds some amazing vocal notes. One of the wittiest musical moments include a Halloween-party number in which young women defend tarty costumes as emblems of feminist independence.
Heather Ayers is also a notably wonderful triple-treat as Cady’s mom, 12th-grade calculus teacher Ms. Norbury and Regina’s wannabe-cool mom, Mrs. George.
With LED screens providing instantaneous scene changes, the cool clique hits a shopping mall, rather than ordering online, providing an excuse for inside jokes and sight gags, like the mall’s satirical store names such as Shameless Shoes and the 1-3-5 clothing store. And you’d better be a size 1, 3 or 5 if you want to sit at Regina’s lunch table, whose scathing remarks and conniving attitude strikes fear in the entire student body.
By the end, when the feuding students have learned the errors of their divergent ways, high-volume hymns of uplift have taken over, and only an occasional number — like “What’s Wrong With Me?” a cri de coeur of insecurity, affectingly performed by Mary Beth Donahoe this night — offers essential insights into character and truly propels the plot.
And, you probably already know this if you’ve seen the movie, but near the end of “Mean Girls”—both in the original 2004 film and the 2018 musical adaptation — there is an untimely, jarring accident with a certain designer-garbed despot when a set piece abruptly arrives, shocking the viewers into uncontrollable laughter.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts Presents MEAN GIRLS, BASED ON TINA FEY’S HIT MOVIE “MEAN GIRLS” March 7th – 19th. Book by nine-time Emmy Award® winner Tina Fey, based on her screenplay for the film, music by three-time Emmy Award® winner Jeff Richmond; and lyrics by two-time Tony Award® nominee Nell Benjamin. Tony Award® winner Casey Nicholaw directs and choreographs.
The tour cast will feature English Bernhardt as Cady Heron, Nadina Hassan as Regina George, Jasmine Rogers as Gretchen Wieners, Morgan Ashley Bryant as Karen Smith, Lindsay Heather Pearce as Janis Sarkisian, Eric Huffman as Damian Hubbard, Adante Carter as Aaron Samuels, Caleb Mathura as Kevin G., Heather Ayers as Mrs. Heron/Ms. Norbury/Mrs. George, Lawrence E. Street as Mr. Duvall and Adriana Scalice as Standby for Cady, Regina, and Janis. The cast also includes Wesley J. Barnes, Erica Simone Barnett, Noah Blessing, Mary Beth Donahoe, Sky Flaherty, Michael Samarie George, Samuel Gerber, Megan Grosso, Dan Horn, Maya Imani, Lily Kaufmann, Milan Magaña, Chelsea Mitchell-Bonsu, Grace Romanello, Sydney Mei Ruf-Wong, Kyra Smith, Avilon Trust Tate, Kevin Wang, and Iain Young.
The creative team includes Scott Pask (Set Design), Gregg Barnes (Costume Design), Kenneth Posner (Lighting Design), Brian Ronan (Sound Design), Finn Ross & Adam Young (Video Design), Josh Marquette (Hair Design), Milagros Medina-Cerdeira (Make-Up Design), Mary-Mitchell Campbell (Music Supervisor), Chris Kong (Music Director), John Clancy (Orchestrations), Glen Kelly (Dance and Incidental Music Arrangements), Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Jeff Richmond, and Natalie Tenenbaum (Vocal Arrangements), Howard Joines (Music Coordinator), and The Telsey Office / Bethany Knox, CSA (Casting).
Tickets are available online at SCFTA.org, at the Box Office at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa, or by calling (714) 556-2787.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report