All teen comedies have a moral, and the moral of “Mean Girls” is “be your authentic self” (which, to be fair, is the moral of most teen movies). Tina Fey’s twist was to give it a “girl power” bent or, rather, potential girl power if girls could just stop hunting each other like a leap of leopards on the savanna. When the film came out in 2004, we weren’t yet burdened by smartphones and cursed with social media and hashtags. That crucial evolution in our species is probably the most significant difference between the film and the new Broadway musical, which opens soon.
The Plastics are back. Regina George has risen and she is as feared and fawned over as ever. And now she’s commanding legions of likes and followers online, which is the new virtual locker-room where school secrets and scandals fester and spread. The chronological update is a success, and “Mean Girls” the musical might be the most fun and effective depiction yet of social media on a Broadway stage (better integrated here than in “Dear Evan Hansen”). The problem with the show, which is fun and frivolous overall, is that it is, to (mis)use a favored grammatical glitch of my generation, literally the movie. I have never seen a musical adaptation lean so heavily on its original screenplay, serving up cult one-liners – “Stop trying to make fetch happen”; “She doesn’t even go here” – with gleeful shamelessness. At the preview performance I attended, the screeching audience gobbled each one up.
But it felt like a missed opportunity in the #ImWithHer and #MeToo era to mine the smart, relevant premise of girl-on-girl sabotage for new angles and fresh layers. The show comes closest to its potential when it gives the spotlight to the film’s secondary characters and lets us see behind their façades: Ashley Park as Gretchen Wieners in particular makes the most of it, and a short, funny-sad lament by Regina’s mom (Kerry Butler, who also does a mean Tina Fey impression as Mrs. Norbury) hints at what the show could have been if it didn’t insist on being so loyal to both the plot and perspective of its source material. In other words, the musical failed to take its own advice: Rather than be fearless (as one of its songs pleads) and be its authentic self, it is content to merely fill the plastic mold of its popular predecessor. “Mean Girls,” the musical, doesn’t trust itself to be an original – or is too afraid we wouldn’t like it if it tried.