After the success of her 2004 film Mean Girls, which she wrote and starred in as calculus teacher Ms. Norbury, many expected and hoped that Tina Fey would take on a sequel. Instead she went a different route and decided to turn the movie into a stage musical. Theater purists already dismayed at the sheer volume of films that have gone that way may have been skeptical, but audiences ate it up, and critics largely embraced it, as well.
Now running at the Fox Theatre through July 24 courtesy of Broadway in Atlanta, Mean Girls is a giddy concoction that manages to carve out its own identity while satisfying fans of the film. It’s a tremendously entertaining production.
The story remains largely the same. Cady Heron (English Bernhardt) grows up on an African savanna, but then moves to suburban Illinois with her family and has to navigate completely new territory: survival of the snarkiest at North Shore High School. She makes friends early on with social outcast Janis Sarkisian (Lindsay Heather Pearce) and Damian Hubbard (Eric Huffman), described by Janis as “almost too gay to function,” who fill Cady in on high school cliques.
Cady soon meets the infamous The Plastics, a trio of power female students with Regina George (Nadina Hassan) at its Queen Bee epicenter, Gretchen Wieners (Jasmine Rogers) the second in command, a bit insecure, and Karen Smith (Morgan Ashley Bryant), admittedly not known for her intellect. These three hover over the school but offer a warm welcome to Cady. With prompts from Damian and Janis, who has had a falling out with Regina, Cady keeps up the friendship with The Plastics to find out their secrets, but after a betrayal, is determined to bring the Queen Bee herself down.
Mean Girls opened on Broadway in 2018 and closed a few years later after 804 performances, a casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and lost them all, most unfortunately for Fey’s inspired book. (That was the season of the lauded The Band’s Visit, a musical that I’ve just never warmed up to.)
The production, at least this version, feels almost like two shows in one. The first act is frothy but not much more than an intermittently enjoyable stage version of the film. It also tries a bit too hard to expand the central story. The second, though, almost from its initial moments, steps into higher, more confident gear. It’s that rare show that proves to be a crowd-pleaser but also makes some smart commentary on how women treat each other and the importance of accepting people who are different.
If the book is sharper overall than the music, with some new laughs and twists and the inclusion of how social media has changed society, the score holds its own, with music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin.
Pearce’s Janis and Huffman’s Damian serve as narrators, opening the musical with “A Cautionary Tale,” explaining the story. A little later those two team with Bernhardt for “Where Do You Belong,” looking at Cady’s options for fitting in and finding a tribe, and “Revenge Party.”
It’s all very cleverly staged and executed. Mean Girls has been directed by Casey Nicholaw, the Tony winner who also directed The Prom at the Alliance Theatre and on Broadway. As with that musical, Nicholaw also handles the sleek choreography.
The production is very fast-moving. Scott Pask’s sets whirl the audience from Africa to Chicago, including varied locales in homes and in the school. Supplementing that are some playful background video projections by Finn Ross and Adam Young that are inspired and creative, especially Regina’s unexpected meeting with a bus.
Fey’s beloved film featured a cast that included Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Amy Poehler, Daniel Franzese, Tim Meadows and Amanda Seyfried. Likewise, the cast here is quite enjoyable. This is one of the first productions of the musical where The Plastics are all played by BIPOC actresses, which gives Mean Girls a more modern feel.
Hassan doesn’t quite make her Regina the dominating, venomous character that Rachel McAdams did in the film, but she does come into her own more as she finds herself on the sidelines. Likewise, if Bernhardt is a little subdued in the beginning, she really blossoms as Cady gets more vindictive and starts to become as (unknowingly) self-absorbed as Regina. Her duet with Aaron (Adante Carter), Regina’s ex that she has a crush on, on “More is Better” is quite lovely.
Lawrence E. Street has droll comic timing as principal Mr. Duvall, as does April Josephine in three roles — Mrs. Heron, Mrs. George and (most memorably) Ms. Norbury — while Rogers and Bryant make terrific impressions as the less biting members of The Plastics.
Yet the standouts in this touring version are Pearce and Huffman.
Huffman’s “Stop” is a clever number that gleefully incorporates some tap dancing and empowerment (“When you’re failing math/ ‘Cause you think it’s more attractive/ To guys if you’re stupid/ Stop”). Having just witnessed a horribly offensive gay character in the Alliance Theatre’s Trading Places, it’s refreshing to see a character as balanced and dimensional as Huffman’s Damian.
Pearce’s comic timing and vocal vocabulary are also wonderful. I loved her rousing second act anthem “I’d Rather Be Me,” a song about staying true to yourself.
Truth be told, Tuesday’s opening night was a little chaotic. Many of the production’s lyrics were drowned out by the orchestra, and technical difficulties stopped the show for 10 minutes. A large contingent of the packed audience were younger audience members who seemed unaware of basic theater and cell-phone etiquette. I could kick myself for not catching Mean Girls in New York, where I could have understood all the lyrics, and patrons on their cell phones would be addressed by ushers — or either “Patti LuPoned.”
Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore what a fun, bang-up job the national tour is doing. If you enjoyed Mean Girls as a film, it’s highly likely you’ll enjoy this just as much. Maybe even more.
Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog Douglas.