Review: Mean Girls at Blumenthal PAC
By Perry Tannenbaum
John Keats, the great poet who never saw his 26th birthday, bid his younger brother George to look at the world as a “vale of soul-making,” a useful rewrite of the “valley of tears” handed down to generations of good Christians through the Latin liturgy. Two centuries later, when our world views were more likely to be molded by Tina Fey, that same epithet was nearly as apt a description of high school. That passageway, a hermetically sealed microcosm of the real world we seeped back into after the last bell rang, was seen to be the place where we were memorably loved, betrayed, scarred, pigeonholed and inspired to find our style, our niche, and our selves.
For the first time, anyway – or forever.
Amid stints as creator of 30 Rock and head writer on Saturday Night Live, a matched set of adult microcosms, Fey demonstrated her mastery of high school reality with her screenplay for Mean Girls in 2004 and, to a lesser extent, in the book she contributed to the musical adaptation of the box office success 14 years later. You’ll be better oriented to the touring version of the Broadway hit, now at Belk Theater, if you cuddle up with the 97-minute original on Netflix.
There you will get a better feel for Evansville, the university town near Chicago where 16-year-old Cady Heron gets her first tastes of high school – and America – after growing up home-schooled in Africa. Markers along the way are clearer on film, where Cady checks in with her folks after days at school, and the progress of the conspiracy to take down queen bee Regina George is itemized and commemorated step-by-step. The musical score was written by Jeff Richmond, Fey’s husband, and clocks in at 66 minutes, supplanting those markers and eating into other key specifics.
A couple of times when I was catching up with the film, where Lindsay Lohan squared off against Rachel McAdams, I found myself exclaiming inwardly, “Oh, that’s how mean she is!” when I saw Regina in action. The most egregious of these omissions from the musical occurred right before McAdams invited Lohan to come and sit with her exalted clique, The Plastics, and have lunch with them for the rest of the week. It’s a cringeworthy humiliation episode in front of the whole cafeteria that gets swallowed up by “Meet the Plastics,” the fourth consecutive lame and overloud song at the top of the show.
Or so it was in the early going on opening night at the Belk, where techs in the soundbooth offered more than a judicious amount of support for the lead singers and ensemble combatting the fortissimo orchestrations by John Clancy. They seemed to get the hang of the hall after intermission, so I was able to decipher more than half of Nell Benjamin’s lyrics. That will be a tremendous godsend at future performances before intermission, when some in the audience might otherwise be struggling to get their bearings.
The show improves when it moves to Cady’s Calculus class, where English Bernhardt gets to sing the calmer, relatively low-key “Stupid With Love” when she’s smitten by the dreamboat sitting in front of her, Adante Carter as Aaron Samuels, Regina’s ex. A nice complex of intrigues begins soon after Janis, Cady’s Goth guide to the treacherous terrain, hatches her three-pronged strategy to dethrone Regina. While Cady sets about infiltrating the Plastics, sowing dissension among Regina’s acolytes, and ruining her perfect bod; Regina learns of Cady’s crush on Aaron and nonchalantly lures him back.
Cady doesn’t blow her cover by showing her anger and jealousy, but she doesn’t give up on Aaron. She begins pretending that she’s dumb rather than brilliant at math, starts taking dives on exams, and reaches out to Aaron to be her tutor – when she should actually be tutoring him. Since Regina’s crimes against her classmates are abridged, we can wonder more readily here in the musical who’s the real meanie than we could in the movie.
These intrigues get to be pretty tasty as the thrust of the songs switches from sketching the horrors of high school to more personal feelings and drama. After Barnhardt bemoans Cady’s Calculus crush, Lindsay Heather Pearce gets to vent her fury at Regina in “Apex Predator,” hoping to destroy Cady’s naïve delusions about the reigning prom queen. It’s apex of this musical’s hard-rock pretensions. Even Eric Huffman as Damian, Janis’s genial gay chum, gets a nice cautionary confessional at the top of Act 2, though “Stop” sounds like he’s shamelessly stealing from Avenue Q or The Book of Mormon.
Reveling in our tragic teen diva, standby Adriana Scalice* subbed on relatively short notice for Nadina Hassan as Regina, growing more admirable in her screaming power ballads as the sound system settled down. You could pretty much get the onslaught of her cattiness late in the opening act as she thrust her predatory claws into Aaron with “Someone Gets Hurt,” but she was far more sensational after the break in her apocalyptic “World Burn.” That’s when Regina discovers that she’s been played.
Hassan disappeared so suddenly from the tour that her name still appears in the top row of both the cast marquee and the photo gallery in the playbill. More amazing at the sold-out opening night performance, a woman sitting close behind me screamed her head off – and nearly mine – each time Scalice appeared! Most amazing was driving home with my wife Sue and two other women: I found myself surrounded by pure nostalgic bliss. High School USA!
*For the Saturday matinee, understudy Olivia Renteria steps in