The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Through January 12
Amy Heckerling’s eagerly anticipated musical adaptation of her 1995 hit comedy, Clueless, is, well, I hate to say, pretty clueless. The sold-out New Group production, which closes tonight at the Signature Center, tries to recapture the hip success of the film, a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, but instead it is a dreary, cliché-ridden mess that fails to provide the necessary pizzazz that energized, for example, Tina Fey’s Broadway musical version of her 2004 movie, Mean Girls. Heckerling, whose directorial debut was another teen giant, Fast Times at Ridgmont High (she’s also made several films in the Look Who’s Talking series and the 2000 disappointment Loser), brings back the whole gang for the musical, centered around superficial fashion-plate Cher (Dove Cameron), who decides to become a matchmaker at posh Beverly Hills High with her bestie, Dionne (Zurin Villanueva), starting with the seemingly implacable Mr. Hall (Chris Hoch) and the mousey Mrs. Geist (Megan Sikora).
Cher, whose father, Mel (Chris Hoch), is a master litigator and whose former stepbrother, Josh (Dave Thomas Brown), is considering law as a career as well, tries her negotiating skills to get better grades from several teachers while also taking on scruffy new student Tai (Ephie Aardema) as a project. Tai is interested in stoner Travis (Will Connolly), but Cher wants to see her with stud muffin Elton (Brett Thiele). Cher herself falls hard for hot new guy Christian (Justin Mortelliti); Dionne, however, is stuck with her longtime boyfriend, Murray (Gilbert L. Bailey II), who doesn’t exactly treat her right. Also making appearances are such peripheral characters from the film as gym teacher Ms. Stoeger (Sikora), stuck-up plastic surgery lover Amber (Tessa Grady), students Summer (Talya Groves) and Sean (Darius Jordan Lee), an unfortunate driving instructor (Hoch), and Cher’s maid, Lucy (Danielle Marie Gonzalez). Passing references to contemporary political correctness are scattered throughout the ragged narrative, accompanied by uninspired projections. (Did they spell “Goverment” that way on purpose, or is it a mistake they never fixed?)
The cast never comes together to form a cohesive whole the way the film actors did; of course, the movie was spoiled with Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Dan Hedaya, Wallace Shawn, Julie Brown, Donald Faison, Breckin Meyer, and Jeremy Sisto. Heckerling, who wrote the book, and director Kristin Hanggi can’t achieve any flow, while Kelly Devine’s choreography is occasionally fun but mostly unmemorable. Amy Clark’s costumes are fashionably clever, even making their way into Beowulf Boritt’s set design. The real problem, however, lies in the music and lyrics. Heckerling takes ’90s favorites by Ace of Base, the Spin Doctors, TLC, Des’ree, Michael Bolton, and others and rewrites the lyrics to match the story, but the new words fail to ignite, too often coming off as silly and trite or overly gimmicky. For example, MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” is turned into “She Can’t Hit This,” as the female students struggle to play tennis in gym class. (“I-I-I-I hate P.E. / [It’s] so lame / I’m gonna say I got menstrual pain,” Dionne sings.)
Two songs that were featured in the movie show up, Jill Sobule’s “Supermodel” (with an added reference to Mean Girls) and the Muffs’ version of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America,” but the latter feels like it came right out of Rock of Ages, which Hanggi directed and Devine choreographed. Reviving Austen’s classic jewel of a story about a matchmaker whose innocent arrogance requires a comeuppance, a young woman who sees all but can’t see herself, is never a bad idea, but in this case the ’90s setting for that gem just seems dated and uninspired. Perhaps that’s what’s just not right about Clueless the Musical; it’s too much of a paint-by-numbers production, with little originality or uniqueness. It’s staged so enthusiastically that you want to love it — Cameron’s nonstop energy is reminiscent of a young Kristin Chenoweth — but it continually lets you down, much like many kids’ high school experience.