That Tina Fey should be able to write for the stage, and should keep writing for the stage and screen and wherever she pleases, goes without saying. And her 2018 adaptation of her 2004 screenplay of Mean Girls updates and improves upon the original in multiple ways — because who wouldn't want to see what Regina George can accomplish with a smartphone and social media?
Fey's now canonical teen movie, eminently quotable for a generation of women and gay men, and whose quotes have become the stuff of memes and idioms of their own, makes for perfect Broadway fodder in many ways. As a stage show, it is set to a slew of peppy new music written by Fey's composer husband Jeff Richmond — the most well known of whose work would be the 30 Rock theme song — and lyricist Nell Benjamin. But taking away the fact that most audiences can't sing along with every song, there's a Rocky Horror-esque quality to attending the show where half (or more) of the room knows every plot point and classic line by heart, and they're itching to shout them out or at least laugh uproariously when they hit.
"That's so fetch!" will get a laugh every time, along with "Gretchen, stop trying to make 'fetch' happen." Ditto for "I'm a cool mom!", "He's too gay to function," "The limit doesn't exist!" and I could go on.
Fey has done us the favor of adding to the lexicon, giving us a slew of new material in the musical's book that includes an almost wholesale rewriting of the character of Karen Smith — played last night by the brilliant Megan Grosso, stepping into the role from the ensemble but displaying some serious comedic chops in the vein of Julie Haggerty. I would say, in terms of new additions to the script, highlights mostly belong to Karen. But there is also a very funny, blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment in the opening sequence when Cady arrives at North Shore High having been homeschooled in Africa, and naively tries to approach a group of kids to introduce herself saying, "Hello, teens!" and a girl looking at her phone just shuts her down by saying, "Unsubscribe!"
The cast in this touring production, which just arrived in San Francisco this week, is buoyed by the eminently cheerful and bouncy English Bernhardt as Cady, who does well to carry the show and sing pop numbers like "It Roars" and "Fearless." Nadina Hassan plays the intimidating Regina George with plenty of swagger and comic timing — but her introductory musical theme, as she sings, "My name is Regina George, and I am a massive deal" in the song "Meet the Plastics" is an early example of where the show's score goes a bit off the rails, a bit of rock-opera recitative at its most ham-fisted.
The musical, like the film, rarely delves too deeply into serious themes — the only real lesson is that bullying is bad, and everyone is guilty of it in some way. And the closest we get to a ballad or a love theme — respectively, Gretchen's Act I lament "What's Wrong With Me?" and Cady and Aaron's "More Is Better" — seem to be over before they began, never really allowing the performers to reach those moments of catharsis that might pull us out of the story for a second, or transcend it.
The joys of the show are Fey's tightly packed jokes, both new and old, and the surprises provided by characters like Karen, Janis, Damian, and Mr. Duvall the principal — played with sly, deadpan brilliance by Lawrence E. Street. Also, the almost-entirely screen-based and versatile set by Scott Pask makes for highly effective scene and mood changes, not to mention plenty of visual jokes.
Eric Huffman is a delight as the comic, self-deprecating Damian — who along with Janis takes on a narrator role in the show, and also leads an Act II tap number that's all about stopping oneself from embarrassment via texts and social media. And stepping into the role of Janis last night was understudy Adriana Scalice, whose vocal chops were another highlight — and who gets the 11 o'clock number, "I'd Rather Be Me."
By the time the Mathletes' tournament lets out and Regina shows up to Spring Fling in a brace (IYKYK), there aren't a lot of surprises left, and the closing number "I See Stars" feels oddly anticlimactic and shoehorned in. Would this should work if it had more sentimental, feel-good balladry about teens finding themselves like Dear Evan Hansen? Probably not. But lost in the translation to the stage are the kind of memorable, cannily appropriate sort of songs these iconic characters deserve.
I'm not sure, in the end, that Mean Girls really needed to be musical. But in the parlance of teens and of our times, I'm not mad at it.
'Mean Girls' plays through Feb. 26 at the Golden Gate Theater. Find tickets here.
Top image: Jasmine Rogers (Gretchen Wieners), Nadina Hassan (Regina George), Morgan Ashley Bryant (Karen Smith) and English Bernhardt (Cady Heron). Photo by Jenny Anderson