Review: Broadway in Austin’s Mean Girls

Tina Fey’s musical induces laughter, sensory overload, and acid reflux

English Bernhardt as Cady Heron (from left), Jasmine Rogers as Gretchen Wieners, Nadina Hassan as Regina George, and Morgan Ashley Bryant as Karen Smith, in the national tour of Mean Girls (Photo by Jenny Anderson)

Some musicals tug at your heartstrings (Dear Evan Hansen), punch you in the gut (Next to Normal), or stir your soul (The Band's Visit). Mean Girls causes acid reflux, at least for those of us who were once an entrée in our high school's eat-or-be-eaten social food chain.

This 2004 film-turned-2018 Broadway musical (the former based on Rosalind Wiseman's 2002 parenting guide Queen Bees and Wannabes) went on the road in September 2019 and packed its bags again last November after a 20-month COVID suspension. Currently on stage for a short stay at Bass Concert Hall, it features a sweet and naive home-schooled teen named Cady Heron (English Bernhardt), who was raised in rural Kenya and arrives in suburban Illinois to attend public high school. She quickly discovers the pecking order that defines North Shore High and the popular apex predators who rule the school. Cady is charmed by the ruthless Regina George (Nadina Hassan), the alpha female in this three-pack of mean girls (also featuring Jasmine Rogers as the insecure Gretchen and Morgan Ashley Bryant as the dim-lit Karen). Soon she is coerced by fellow social outcasts, the goth Janis (Lindsay Heather Pearce) and Randy Rainbowesque Damian (played on the evening of my attendance by Samuel Gerber), to infiltrate the clique, undermine its leadership, and seek nerd revenge.

Chronicling teenage clique culture is not a particularly original idea (see Heathers and its spawn) and the prospect of popping Tums at intermission to tame the triggering holds little appeal. But, on paper at least, this musical has great potential to entertain given its dream team of Tony- and Emmy-winning creatives: nine-time Emmy Award winner Tina Fey (30 Rock) does the writing; three-time Emmy Award winner Jeff Richmond (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) does the music; lyrics are by two-time Tony Award nominee Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde); scenic design is by three-time Tony Award winner Scott Pask (The Coast of Utopia), and the show is directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon).

(l-r) Jasmine Rogers as Gretchen Wieners and English Bernhardt as Cady Heron in the national tour of Mean Girls (Photo by Jenny Anderson)
It's no surprise that Mean Girls earned a dozen Tony nominations for its assorted pieces and parts. Once the show starts, however, it's clear why it was bested at the awards ceremony by the short-lived SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, with its one win to Mean Girls' none. The wicked-funny script, cleverly crafted score, and abundance of eye-candy production values – the remarkable scenic design, for example, consists of elaborate, vibrant, and often animated digital displays – are incredibly entertaining. But there is zero time between scenes or songs to allow audiences to reflect, respond, or smell the teen spirit. And so this musical is a sensory-overloading blur of high-volume, high-velocity activity.

Also, like the film that came before it, the meanness that is so much a part of this storyline renders the musical soulless. That is, except for the messages about female empowerment that were understated in the film but are given their own songs here. The anthem "I'd Rather Be Me" is sung by Pearce, who made her Broadway debut as Elphaba in Wicked before joining the cast in May to play Janis. She has ample opportunity to use her powerhouse vocals, but she pretty much steals the show with this song. Poignant ballad "What's Wrong With Me?" is beautifully sung by Rogers as Gretchen and, in its second-act reprisal, by April Josephine as Regina's pathetic mother. Both songs nicely showcase what the exceptional 12-piece orchestra (including seven Austin musicians) under music director Chris Kong's baton bring to the production.

Amidst the frenzy of activity on stage are remarkably talented and hardworking performers, many of whom have only recently joined the cast and are fresh, enthusiastic, and astoundingly energetic. Bernhardt was an ensemble member when the tour relaunched but got bumped up play the lead role, Cady Heron, in May. It is obvious why, given her triple-threat performance – a quality she shares with the other featured actors.

It is unfortunate that the show seems to cater to the subjects of the show itself: teenagers with a limited attention span but endless capacity to process stimuli. The rest of us will likely find ourselves dazed and confused. Like how we were in, urp, high school.

Broadway in Austin's Mean Girls

Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman
Through Aug. 7
Running time: 2 hrs., 30 min.

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