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MEAN GIRLS (National Tour)

MEAN GIRLS (National Tour)

Music by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, book by Tina Fey
Based on the 2004 Motion Picture of the same name.

Broadway Dallas

Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Musical Direction by Chris Kong
Scenic Design by Scott Pask
Costume Design by Gregg Barnes
Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner
Sound Design By Brian Ronan
Video Design by Finn Ross and Adam Young
Hair Design by Josh Marquette
Make-up Design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira
Musical Supervision by Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Orchestrations by John Clancy Dance and Incidental Music Arrangements by Glen Kelly
Associate Choreographer- John Macinnis
Production Stage Manager- Michelle Dunn
Stage Manager- Emma Ramsay-Saxon
Asst. Stage Manager- John Carpentier
Asst. Stage Manager- Tanesha Mood

English Bernhardt- CADY HERON
Nadina Hassan- REGINA GEORGE
Morgan Ashley Bryant- KAREN SMITH
Mary Kate Morrissey- JANIS SARKISIAN
Adante Carter- AARON SAMUELS
Kabir Bery- KEVIN G
Lawrence E. Street- MR. DUVALL
ENSEMBLE: Aaron Allcaraz, Erica Simone Barnett, Deshawn Bowens, Iain Young, Maya Imani, Brittany Conigatti, Mary Beth Donahoe, Niani Feelings (Dance Captain), Sky Flaherty, Samuel Gerber, Dan Horn, Asia Marie Kreitz, Olivia Renteria, Grace Romanello, Jake Swan, Sydney Mei Ruf-Wong.

Reviewed Performance: 5/4/2022

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

In the last couple of months, I have reviewed a staged production from each of the three major concepts or let’s say paths, that the craftsmen or women of musicals tend to take their materials to build from the ground up a musical. There is the original path, which is a musical that has an original new score as well as its book. The musical that I reviewed recently in that genre was HADESTOWN. It had an eclectic, fresh score that was composed specifically for the pages of its book and characters. While the book did take the overall theme from Greek mythology, it completely took a striking, dynamic different approach to tell a dramatic, haunting story through a new pair of eyes and artistic hearts.

Then there is the jukebox musical. Where the creative team wraps their collective talents around the canon of an artist’s lifetime music catalog and recreates either an autobiographical story of that artist’s life or a different story using that artist’s music. Or they use hit music from various artists to twist, flip, twirl, swirl, or contort like origami to make it fit into the book, its storyline, and the characters. This is a very risky and costly process to attempt. It can result by having box office gold, Tony Award-winning hits like JERSEY BOYS, and MOVIN OUT. Or ghastly flops like HEAD OVER HEELS, GOOD VIBRATIONS, LENNON, THE LOOK OF LOVE, and the list goes on.

There is that extremely rare gem of the amalgamation of the jukebox musical in which you use a variety of popular hit songs from a profusion of major chart-topping hits and use as its source a critically acclaimed Motion Picture that earned several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, mix them into a hypnotic, delicious confection. That is what the creative team did with MOULIN ROUGE!

The final path these craftsmen and women can take travel on is taking a hit Motion Picture, or one that has achieved cult status, and transforming it for the stage. But for every WEST SIDE STORY ( the remake) you have URBAN COWBOY the musical. For every GREASE, you get DIRTY DANCING the musical. It’s a perilous journey to take.

It is the third path that the craftsmen and women have taken us on with their creation of this musical using a 2004 campy, cult classic film.

Wednesday night’s musical, MEAN GIRLS, is based on the 2004 mega-hit film written by SNL break-out star Tina Fey. The film starred Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Amanda Seyfried, Tim Meadows, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, and Fey. The film became a major box office hit, cementing Lohan’s stardom as a teen star, and introduced the world to McAdams and Seyfried, who have now become huge film stars. Both Gasteyer and Poehler have gone on to become major powerhouse comedic stars in the industry.

As for the stage production, it would premiere at the National Theatre, Washington, D.C., in October 2017. MEAN GIRLS would have its Broadway opening in April 2018 at the August Wilson Theatre. In January 2020, the producers informed the press that they have recouped their initial capitalization. Sadly, two months later the COVID19 pandemic hit Broadway, and MEAN GIRLS along with every other show on Broadway shut down. In January 2021, the producers released a statement that they are not bringing back the show, but instead decided to shut down the Broadway musical permanently. It would close with having played 833 performances. MEAN GIRLS was nominated for 12 Tony awards but was completely shut out. That was the year of THE BAND’S VISIT and Disney’s FROZEN.

Back in March 2020, the MEAN GIRLS first U.S. National tour had already been out on the road racking up performances, that production was also shut down in March 2020. Once Broadway opened, so did the tour and they hit the road.

That leads us to Wednesday night as I sat in the music hall ready to review MEAN GIRLS, written by SNL/30 ROCK/ Golden Globe Co-host goddess Tina Fey.

The best part of all of the creative elements that make up this musical is Tina Fey’s book, and even that has some glaring potholes. She clearly made sure to reproduce what was on celluloid is duplicated on the stage boards, frame by frame, board by board. And that, I’m afraid is where the troubles begin. Fey knows how much the fans love this film, so to not disappoint them, she lost focus on not fleshing the characters out more on stage, dusting off the 2004 “mentality” and “social views” and bringing them up to date. The lyrics and the book added pop culture references all evening long (i.e., Katy Perry’s shark, which was 2015). The book was funny, but felt trapped in its 2004 box of, “been there, seen that, what else you got.” Syndrome. Sadly, this is a tragic theme that is slowly seeping into more musicals using well-known films, etc. as its source. They just regurgitate or reduplicate what the film was to express feed the masses, not adding originality, stretching the material for new artistic freedom within its comedy and/or dramatic variations with the characters and writing. Fey’s book just didn’t pop or sizzle with side-splitting new jokes, one-liners, or comedic setups. Her Golden Globe opening monologues are ridiculously hilarious (i.e., remember the George Clooney jokes- two years in a row-historic!). The book did its job, it took the film and brought it to life on stage. But was that all it was supposed to do?

I’m going to be blunt here because there’s no way to sugarcoat this. Jeff Richmond’s music and Nell Benjamin’s lyrics were banal, tedious, and mundane. The last time I sat through a musical whose music was so lifeless and stale was Broadway’s DRACULA. I sat at that musical, hoping that one of the wooden stakes on stage would fly by accident from the actor’s grip and hit me in the heart, putting me out of my misery to sit through that slosh of a mess. MEAN GIRLS had a score that lacked any pop, pizzazz, vitality, or a hint of a true sense of a danceable beat, or the lack of a grounded vocal breakdown for solid harmonies within the ensemble, and purposeful belting (there’s a MAJOR difference between a character’s purpose and subtext to crescendo and belt within a song- than to just belt for the sake of having a “Mariah Carey” moment- as some of the female leads tried Wednesday night). Even with uneven musical scores (and I’ve sat through a trunk load of new musicals as examples), there are at least 3 to 5 great, new songs within its score. In the MEAN GIRLS score, not one song stood out. Not one. There is no solo showstopper. No 11 0’clock number that the audience goes crazy for. No ensemble number you go cheer and applaud and say later, “That saved Act two for me!.” Then there were the perplexing moments of who got solos or missed opportunities for a character to get a chance to create a better arc within its character.

For example, the character Kevin G. gets a number titled “Whose House Is This?.” He is a featured role that barely makes a blip in the first act. When he does this rap number, I don’t know if this was his choice as an actor or the director, but he vocally sounded and moved his body as well to resemble Lin Manuel Miranda doing IN THE HEIGHTS. The bigger question is, why put this number in the show at all? It didn’t move the plot, nor help the leads or supporting characters in any way. Was it to give the ensemble something to do? It didn’t do anything but slow the pace. Instead of this needless number, they could have moved on with the show. Thereby giving time on stage for a solo song for Damian and his true, personal reaction to being nominated for Spring Fling Queen. Here was a powerful, emotional moment to give the character some depth, organic subtext beyond all that over-the-top, flamboyant schtick. Was he fine being nominated in front of the whole school? Are we in 2004 or 2021? Was he hurt and embarrassed by being bullied once again? Such a damn shame that this precious, raw, organic moment was completely overlooked. After a while, the score just became white noise. It kills me writing this because I so desperately wanted to love this show, so I was completely shocked at how mediocre and mundane the score turned out to be. This score was DOA on stage, and there was nothing that could be done to bring it to life.

I hold such esteemed respect and admiration for Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography. He is the genius behind such critically acclaimed hits as THE BOOK OF MORMON, ALADDIN, and SOMETHING ROTTEN! But my all-time favorite work of his is THE PROM, in which I had the esteemed joy of reviewing the out-of-town tryout in Atlanta. It is one of the most beautiful, touching, and glorious musicals I’ve ever seen. So, I’m left dumbstruck on how this musical was left to go out like this. Maybe it’s just me. I just didn’t get it. I was perplexed and confused all evening.

The choreography is basically just there, nothing visually thrilling to observe. It looks repetitive after a while. During the Act one finale when one character brings out a streamer and attempts a funny physical bit, you get a sense as though it was a desperate last-minute moment to fill in a couple of empty measures of dance music because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. Then there’s the staging. Why is everyone blocked to look straight out into the house? There’s a quick moment off and on throughout the evening of characters looking at each other, but then BAM! Let’s face out to the audience. For a second I swore I saw Corky St. Clair in the wings holding a clipboard and a pillow in frustration.

Scott Pask’s scenic design primarily was a few set pieces sliding in and out, such as lockers, benches, sofas, etc. The only true full set was Regina’s pink bedroom set. The majority of the “set” was videos, designed by Finn Ross and Adam Young. These floor-to-ceiling video walls are cut into pieces and cover all sides of the stage. They flash a never-ending array of images, from pink exploding stars, flying birds, Instagram postings, etc. At times you feel as though you accidentally walked into the wrong theater and are seated at a performance of DEAR EVAN HANSEN. And that is where the issue lies. Quite a few musicals now use this new technology of video screens instead of actual sets. At first, they were a great WOW factor, but now they have so overextended their welcome. I miss real sets. They have become a bit bothersome because instead of focusing on the acting, lyrics, etc. you are watching the videos, trying to read what is being flashed on the screen. During several scenes, I wasn’t paying attention at all to what was being said on stage because my focus was being forced to read the video screens with all its snapping and flashing of images. Are we at the movies or the theater?

At Wednesday’s performance, the sound and body mics were a hellish nightmare to contend with throughout the entire evening. From where I was sitting, I honestly could not make out what was being said. The diction from the majority of principals did not help whatsoever. It was mushy, garbled, and sluggish. You could just not understand them. It sounded as though the body mics were on one set of speakers and the orchestra was on a different, so one sounded far away, while the other sounded like they were underwater. To make matters worse, there were missed body mic cues off and on throughout the evening. When someone had the punchline of a joke or the answer to a question, we didn’t hear it because their body mic was off, or we heard the last two words of it as the body mic was turned on halfway or towards the end of their line. You wondered if it was tech night for sound.

In the thirty-plus years of attending and reviewing National tours, I’ve never said this in a review- but sadly no one in the cast truly stood out, stole the show, or gave a stellar, out-of-this-world performance. There were a couple of pleasurable, decent performances at best.

English Bernhardt gives a charming if somewhat lackluster performance in the principal role of Cady Heron, the film role that made Lindsay Lohan a star. Bernhardt has a lovely set of soprano vocals and a solid belt, but she doesn’t peel into the layers to bring out the complicated inner workings of what is battling within Cady’s heart, both with her two new friends (Janis and Damian) and the Plastic mean girls, and her new romance with Aaron. You just don’t see the switch flip within her acting tools of indie spirit friend unite and new plastic beyotche. It’s not there. There are no emotional imprints seeping from her with her solo songs as well. Mind you it doesn’t help that the lyrics and music don’t go anywhere either, so she already has a tough wall to climb already- but she still needs to tackle it. Finally, her comedic beats are off. She tends to land every fifth or ninth beat of her punchlines, thus missing the joke or not landing the laugh at all. She is enjoyable, but the role could have been so much more.

Nadina Hassan portrays Regina George, which Rachel McAdams made the role iconic on celluloid. It devastates me to write this, but Ms. Hassan had horrible diction when it came to her singing. I honestly could not comprehend what she was saying. It sounded like she had her cheeks full of crushed ice and was forced to sing that way. Vocally she had a couple of rough notes that didn’t land exactly right. For example, in the duet “Someone Gets Hurt,” when she tried to reach the higher soprano notes she went sharp or right below the key. What made the character of Regina so wickedly delicious and stole the film from Lohan was how McAdams was all Sugar and spice one second, then sexual beast, then a vicious cruel medusa the next. Hassan stayed stuck in one gear- bitter bitch. She never took a detour or dimmed from this attitude/emotion. Thus, when her “transformation” happens at the end, it felt so false and anti-climactic. Hassen did have better success vocally and characterization-wise with her solo “World Burn” at the beginning of the song, but then it slowly began to transform into a weaker version of “No Good Deed” from WICKED, both in its staging and musically.

Olivia Renteria’s performance as Gretchen Wieners was a delight and provided some of the few best laughs of the entire evening for me. In the motion picture version, the role was created by PARTY OF FIVE star Lacey Chabert. Ms. Renteria had a decent composed song that she worked in her favor to wring out the best laughs that she could achieve, and she did. The number was titled, “What’s Wrong With Me?” which is reprised at the best moments in the musical’s book. Renteria’s good comedic timing lands wonderfully with this song. She is the only principal role that showed complexity in her arc. She is baffled and hurt as to why Regina keeps her out of the inner-inner circle. She displays her honest wounded heart. Renteria’s work was a breath of comedic fresh air in an evening of disappointment.

In the film, the ditsy, “the lights are not on in her brain” blonde plastic girl AKA Karen Smith was portrayed to perfection by Amanda Seyfried, who is currently earning critical raves for Hulu’s THE DROPOUT. For this national tour, the role is now played by Morgan Ashley Bryant, who happens to be African American. I find this casting choice a stroke of genius! We never see this, at least I haven’t. Ms. Bryant is the other performer who was pure sparkling Christmas tinsel (for the most part) in this production. Ms. Bryant completely threw away the cookie cardboard pattern and usual trademarks of how an airhead, ditsy girl has been played in countless musicals and plays. She gives her characterization a different rhythm and comedic beat pattern, that at times landed the jokes and punchlines perfectly, but at other times, unfortunately, goes totally offbeat and veers way off course, thereby not landing anywhere near the punchline whatsoever. She has the beginnings of strong vocal structure and a sense of natural comedic muscle sensory on where to change her voice, facial expression, tone, and volume to squeeze more laughs out of ordinary lines. THIS is the gift of comedy. It cannot be taught; you are either born with it or not. The more she fine-tunes this gift, the stronger her comedic talents will explode. Regardless, She was ONE of TWO performers within the ENTIRE cast on stage that used great facial expressions to her advantage, earning her the biggest laughs of the evening. While her big number titled “Sexy” is dismally composed and matched with flat, ho-hum lyrics (“I give you sexy corn/ And cure some sexy cancer!” Seriously?!), Ms. Bryant is quite funny -especially at the very beginning of the number!

On film, the role of Aaron Samuels was portrayed by Jonathan Bennett. On stage in this tour, it is Adante Carter. A tall, handsome actor, but lamentably has zero chemistry with English Bernhardt (Cady). There is just zilch, nada sparks ebbing whatsoever between these two. Carter seemed to be stuck in monotone gear within his performance. He just didn’t change his energy, emotion, characterization, etc. whatsoever, it just stayed on this low-key hum. He even spoke in a soft repetitive tone that made it difficult to hear him. It didn’t help that he was sacked with vacuous, sluggish ballads to sing.

Mary Kate Morrissey is Janis Sarkisan, the goth girl with colored hair who is also artistic, and her best friend. Damian Hubbard, portrayed by Eric Huffman, who is “too gay to function.”

Morrissey does an admirable job with the role, she does have some fun with the comedic sides of the character and does a fantastic vocal job with the company number, “Apex Predator.” But regrettably, she falls into the trap of making the character one note as the bitter, angry anti-social goth girl. It would have immensely benefitted her and the role if she gave her more heart when she was with just Damian and Cady, giving her more of a girl who isn’t afraid to show her true self to the people she cares. We’ve seen this stereotype of a goth girl done to death; it would have been such a welcome relief to see a fresh new approach to break that mold. Nonetheless, Morrissey is entertaining.

I’ve seen the film MEAN GIRLS several times, and I honestly don’t remember Daniel Franzese portraying Damian as a big, flaming queen. He played him with a dry, wicked, snarky sense of humor with a dash of bitchiness. But for sure nowhere near as the flamboyant, over-the-top, Miss Thang caricature that has been transformed for the stage musical. Here is where I have a huge issue with this style of characterization of a gay character in today’s musical. The LGBTQ community and Hollywood activists, writers, directors, producers, actors, etc. have fought hard for years against the Hollywood machine, Motion Pictures head honchos, and Television studios and so on, to stop writing and portraying gay men in those stereotypes. It took years of tough, endless battles to FINALLY get Hollywood to portray LGBTQ characters outside of this trapped box. Shouldn’t this same guideline be passed as well to the theater? If Damian is this far “out,” is everyone at this school that accepting? It’s never explained or explored. This could have been a PERFECT moment in the book and score to show the audience why he’s so accepted. He’s nominated for queen- and it’s NEVER questioned or discussed! It isn’t in the movie either, which always felt bizarre. Eric Huffman does a fine job with the role, and it’s noticeably clear that he had tons of fans in the audience by the loud cheers and laughter. He got roaring applause at curtain call. But why are we STILL feeding into that stereotype? Huffman also seemed to go through the motions in Act two as though he lost steam, his big tap number, “Stop” he seemed to just sleepwalk through the choreography and not sell the hell out of that number. Huffman has an incredible vocal range, radiant stage presence, and good comedic timing. I just found the artistic decision to go down this route just not needed. Not anymore. Do better. Teach future generations about the diversity within the culture. I just felt that book writer Tiny Fey could have re-written this role and brought it up to date.

The house at the Music Hall Wednesday night was packed and the audience ate this show up like a box of Kälteen Bars. Going by their reactions, they loved it. The theater was overflowing with girls and women of all ages dressed in every shade of pink. We were surrounded by a sea of pink. So much of it, it reminded me of that line that M’Lynn says in STEEL MAGNOLIAS regarding the colors blush and bashful. She said, “That sanctuary looks like it's been hosed down with Pepto-Bismol”

This tour will be a MONSTER hit for Broadway Dallas as it clearly has a built-in audience, so this review won’t affect it whatsoever. When it opened on Broadway it was a massive hit. So, I know I am in the minority in that for me it regrettably did not achieve my expectations nor matched all the hype that was surrounding it on Broadway.

Was MEAN GIRLS the musical fetch? As I walked out of the Music Hall with my friend, the best word I could sum it all up was, “Meh.”

MEAN GIRLS (National Tour)
Music by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, book by Tina Fey
Based on the 2004 Motion Picture of the same name.
Broadway Dallas

Recommended for ages 10 and up.
Run Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with 1 intermission


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