Tina Fey is the queen of snarky humor that appeals to contemporary audiences. The star of 30 Rock (2006-2013) and Saturday Night Live (1997-2006) had a significant hit with her screenplay for the 2004 film Mean Girls, a slice of bad behavior by girls in high school cliques that struck a lot of people as an insightful glimpse into how teens behave and misbehave in today’s world. She turned her screenplay into the book for a 2018 Broadway musical that earned a dozen Tony Award nominations (although no wins). A tour of that show is currently making its way around the U.S., with a stop at Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center this month.
It’s the story of Cady Heron (Danielle Wade), whose academic parents spent 12 years in Kenya — where their daughter was home-schooled. She arrives at a suburban Chicago high school where she’s quickly branded a geek by a trio of “mean girls” who pass judgment on everyone and everything. She’s befriended by Damian (Eric Huffman) and Janis (Mary Kate Morrissey), a strong-minded pair who follow their own paths: he’s openly gay, she’s an aspiring if sarcastic artist. Together, they convince Cady of a way to bring down the ruling triumvirate. They also serve as Mean Girls’ narrators.
The show is full of youthful energy. Huffman, a grad of the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, is front and center in a pair of glorious dance numbers. “Where Do You Belong?” is about fitting in and uses bright red food trays in the dance in the school cafeteria, while “Stop” is a spirited and thundering tap number. The show’s director happens to be one of Broadway’s best choreographers, Casey Nicholaw.
The production also uses innovative video projection for scene setting: Scott Pask created the overall design, with Finn Ross and Adam Young designing and executing the video concepts. The story moves from the high school to Cady’s home and elsewhere at the speed of light — or at least by video — with “wipes” taking us from one realistic moment to another.
All of this is not enough to make the show entirely satisfying. Rather than offering insights about how to overcome adolescent rivalries, the musical numbers, which are indeed full of energy and humor, dilute any effort to bridge the gap toward something more meaningful. Cady, well sung by Wade, does accomplish her goal of becoming a Queen Bee at the expense of others; she also suffers the consequences and learns an obvious lesson. Nevertheless, it all feels rather shallow, predictable and inauthentic.
Go along for the ride and you’ll probably have fun. But don’t expect to learn how teens might come to terms with, get beyond social stratification and evolve to more mature behavior. Mean Girls spends more time reveling in the humor of caricatured girls behaving badly and not enough on how people inside and outside cliques can be shaped and hurt by such actions.
Mean Girls, presented by Broadway in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center, continues through Nov. 17. For more info, visit cincinnatiarts.org.