Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 10, $65-$159
“There is something about her,” men say of Saint Joan, the title character in Bernard Shaw’s 1923 play. There is also something about Condola Rashad, who portrays Joan in the current Manhattan Theatre Club revival at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Rashad has now appeared in five Broadway shows, earning four Tony nominations, for Stick Fly, The Trip to Bountiful, A Doll’s House, Part 2, and Saint Joan. (She was also nominated for a Drama Desk Award for her 2009 off-Broadway debut, Ruined, but got shut out as Juliet in a misbegotten Broadway revival of Romeo and Juliet in 2013.) The thirty-one-year-old Rashad is charming as Joan, a teenage farm girl in 1429 who claims that Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine speak to her and that God has commanded her to lead the French to victory in Orleans against the occupying English so the hapless Dauphin (Adam Chanler-Berat) can claim the throne as King Charles VII. She joins a luminous roster of actresses who have played Saint Joan, including Wendy Hiller, Uta Hagen, Joan Plowright, Jean Seberg, Imelda Staunton, Imogen Stubbs, Amy Irving, and Diana Sands, the only other black woman to portray Joan in a major production, at Lincoln Center in 1968. Rashad’s Joan is sweet-natured but determined, gentle yet forceful, a kind of hero just right for the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter generation. Joan goes about the world of men — Rashad is the only woman in the cast, among twelve actors, save for a brief appearance by Mandi Masden as the Duchess de la Trémouille — with an ease that emanates from her faith.
Military squires, royals, and religious leaders disparage Joan until they meet her, slowly falling under her captivating spell. Robert de Baudricourt (Patrick Page) brags about how he “burns witches and hangs thieves,” but Joan tells him, “They all say I am mad until I talk to them, squire. But you see that it is the will of God that you are to do what He has put into my mind,” and he does. Captain La Hire (Lou Sumrall) calls her “an angel dressed as a soldier.” Charles might not want to be king, but Joan is on a holy mission to see that he is crowned at Rheims Cathedral. “If the English win, it is they that will make the treaty: and then God help poor France!” she tells Charles. “You must fight, Charlie, whether you will or no. I will go first to hearten thee. We must take our courage in both hands: aye, and pray for it with both hands too.” But after she impossibly takes Orleans despite being massively outnumbered and then urges the campaign continue on to recapture Paris, the military, the church, and the monarchy realize her power and turn on her, trying her for sins that could get her burned at the stake.
Scott Pask’s set is dominated by large gold pipes hanging from above, as if the entire play takes place inside a giant church organ, spreading Joan’s religious message. “It is in the bells I hear my voices,” Joan tells Jack Dunois (Daniel Sunjata), who ably fights by her side. “Not today, when they all rang: that was nothing but jangling. But here in this corner, where the bells come down from heaven, and the echoes linger, or in the fields, where they come from a distance through the quiet of the countryside, my voices are in them.” Shaw (who preferred not to use the first name George) famously said, “I’m an atheist and I thank God for it”; in writing the play, he was trying to neither convert anyone nor convince them to leave the fold, nor was he creating a biblical-style story of good versus evil. In a preface to the published edition, Shaw wrote, “There are no villains in the piece. . . . It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.” Shaw, who also wrote such works as Pygmalion, Major Barbara and Man and Superman and won the Nobel Prize shortly after Saint Joan, does not include any superheroes either. “I am not a daredevil: I am a servant of God,” Joan says to Dunois. “My heart is full of courage, not of anger. I will lead; and your men will follow: that is all I can do. But I must do it: you shall not stop me.”
The exemplary cast also features Max Gordon Moore as Bluebeard, Walter Bobbie as the Bishop of Beauvais, John Glover as the Archbishop of Rheims, Matthew Saldivar as Bertrand de Poulengey, Robert Stanton as Baudricourt’s steward, Russell G. Jones as Monseigneur de la Trémouille, and Jack Davenport as the Earl of Warwick. Most of the actors play more than one role; Page is particularly impressive as Baudricourt and the Inquisitor. Daniel Sullivan’s (The Little Foxes, Proof) direction can get a little bumpy though there are several deft touches, and at nearly three hours, the show can be a little trying. Which brings us to the rather campy epilogue. Shaw wrote Saint Joan in 1923, three years after her canonization, something he deals with in the somewhat surreal, comic, and arguably out-of-place conclusion. “As to the epilogue, I could hardly be expected to stultify myself by implying that Joan’s history in the world ended unhappily with her execution, instead of beginning there,” Shaw wrote. “It was necessary by hook or crook to shew the canonized Joan as well as the incinerated one; for many a woman has got herself burnt by carelessly whisking a muslin skirt into the drawing-room fireplace, but getting canonized is a different matter, and a more important one. So I am afraid the epilogue must stand.” And so it does, for better or worse.
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 1, $79 - $209
Two-time Oscar and Tony winner Denzel Washington is nothing short of majestic as traveling hardware salesman Theodore “Hickey” Hickman in George C. Wolfe’s powerful adaptation of Eugene’ O’Neill’s staggering masterpiece, The Iceman Cometh. Washington’s charm lights up the dark goings-on at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where set designer Santo Loquasto has transformed the stage into the No Chance Saloon, the Bedrock Bar, the End of the Line Café, a dank, depressing Greenwich Village dive in 1912 owned by Harry Hope (Colm Meaney) that is populated by a gang of luckless losers intent on drinking themselves into oblivion. The only thing they have to look forward to is the twice-a-year arrival of Hickey, who cheers them up by filling them with free drinks and telling wild stories from the real world outside. He’s like Jesus turning water into whiskey for his apostles, who consist of Larry Slade (David Morse), a former activist who has turned his back on life and wants nothing to do with anyone; Ed Mosher (Bill Irwin), a former circus performer; Harvard Law School graduate Willie Oban (Neal Huff); Boer War nemeses Piet Wetjoen (Dakin Matthews) and Cecil Lewis (Frank Wood); nighttime bartender Rocky Pioggi (Danny McCarthy), who also is a pimp for Margie (Nina Grollman), Pearl (Carolyn Braver), and Cora (Tammy Blanchard); Chuck Morello (Danny Mastrogiorgio), the daytime bartender who is in love with Cora; disgraced NYPD detective Pat McGloin (Jack McGee); communist revolutionary Hugo Kalmar (Clark Middleton), who sleeps through much of the show; Joe Mott (Michael Potts), the only African American at the bar, who wants to open a black-only gambling house; and Jimmy Tomorrow (Reg Rogers), a former journalist who believes he will return to society “tomorrow.”
Larry is deeply disturbed when Don Parritt (Austin Butler) shows up, the teenage son of an old lover from Larry’s anarchist days. Don desperately wants Larry’s approval and acceptance, but Larry refuses to care about anyone or anything, choosing to drink till he dies even though he’s probably the only person in the bar who could actually still play a role in society. As the men and women bicker, argue, joke around, and prepare for Harry’s birthday party, Hickey finally arrives, bigger and better than ever, immediately injecting life into the motley group of drunks. But this time around, Hickey, in his trademark straw hat, has something more to offer besides free drinks and Champagne: He is determined to help each man find a reason to stop being a worthless drunk and instead pick himself off his barstool, return to the real world, and make his “pipe dreams” come true. He is also armed with a secret that he’s not quite ready to share.
Four-time Pulitzer Prize winner O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey into Night, Strange Interlude) wrote The Iceman Cometh in 1939, but it was not staged until after WWII, in 1946, debuting at the Martin Beck Theatre. It deals with politics, racism, and the forgotten men of America, but O’Neill does not blame society, the economy, or war for their alcoholism and retreat from existence; these are men who would have given up no matter the era, lending the play a terrifying kind of timelessness. Hickey has never been their savior; ironically, he is the one who betrays them by suddenly trying to give meaning to their miserable lives. Wolfe even stages the party scene at a long table reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” Wolfe has trimmed the show down to a slim three hours and fifty minutes, with two intermissions and a pause, pacing the drama well, like drinking a smooth glass of high-end whiskey and not a shot, or full bottle, or rotgut. The cast is exceptional, a team of pros giving it everything they’ve got. Meaney brings depth to Harry, Rogers plays Jimmy with just the right tease of hope, Potts adeptly handles the racism angle, and Butler, in his Broadway debut, is bright-eyed and determined as the young Don, a part previously played by such future stars as Jeff Bridges and Robert Redford.
But the key to the success of the show is the relationship between Hickey and Larry; over the years, the former has been portrayed by Jason Robards, Kevin Spacey, Brian Dennehy, James Earl Jones, Lee Marvin, and Nathan Lane, while the latter has been played by James Cromwell, Robert Ryan, Patrick Stewart, Conrad Bain, Tim Pigott-Smith, and Dennehy. Washington and Morse, who both starred as doctors in the groundbreaking, Emmy-winning 1980s series St. Elsewhere, are staunch and deeply affecting in their roles. Morse’s Larry is loud and angry, often walking to the sides of the stage to just watch the other losers, as if he is better than them, even if he won’t admit it. Washington’s Hickey throws knowing glances at Larry; he wants his friend to change but knows it’s unlikely. Washington commands the stage with his full body, gesturing with his arms and legs, at times hunching over just a bit and leaning his head forward as he spreads his new ideas. He delivers the final monologue — on a chair, not a cross — beautifully as his disciples gaze intently from behind. Both Washington and Morse have received Tony nominations for their performances; the show has also been nominated for Best Revival, Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design (Ann Roth), Best Lighting (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer), Best Sound (Dan Moses Schreier), and Best Director. The title comes from Hickey’s classic story about returning home one day to unexpectedly find the ice salesman with his wife in the hay, but it also refers to the specter of death haunting each one of these characters.
254 West 54th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 27, $29-$159
Every so often a previously successful play returns to Broadway in a revival that makes you wonder not only why it’s back but what the heck made it so special in the first place. Such is the case with Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, which just announced an early closing date of May 27 at Studio 54. Medoff wrote the play specifically for deaf actress Phyllis Frelich, loosely based on her real-life relationship with her husband, Robert Steinberg. The original 1980 production ran at the Longacre Theatre for more than two years and was nominated for four Tonys, winning Best Play, Best Actress (Frelich), and Best Actor (John Rubinstein). The British edition won the Olivier for Best New Play as well as Best Actress (Elizabeth Quinn) and Best Actor (Trevor Eve). And the 1986 film version was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and winning for Best Actress (Marlee Matlin). So went wrong this time around? Where should I begin?
Kenny Leon’s revival is stultifyingly dull — dare I say tone-deaf — as it explores the relationship between James Leeds (Drama League–nominated Joshua Jackson), a speech teacher at a school for the deaf, and Sarah Norman (Tony-nominated Lauren Ridloff), a twenty-six-year-old maid at the school who refuses to verbalize and fiercely rejects any attempt to help her do so. Sarah sees learning to speak as a betrayal of the nonhearing world she is proudly a part of, while James can’t understand why she wouldn’t want to speak or even use the latest technology that might allow her to at least pick up vibrations of sound. Very quickly, James falls for Sarah — well, it’s more like he stalks her — which upsets Sarah’s best friend, Orin (John McGinty), as well as the jealous Lydia (Treshelle Edmond), both students at the school. It also alarms the principal, Mr. Franklin (Anthony Edwards). In their Broadway debuts, Jackson (The Affair, Fringe) speaks too loudly and enunciates too clearly, never varying his speech pattern regardless of what he’s saying to whom, and Emmy winner Edwards speaks too softly, making it hard to hear much of what he has to say. All signed words are spoken out loud by the hearing actor being signed to, while all spoken words are shown in supertitles that are not always in sync with what is being said, often slightly ahead of the action. Whether all this is deliberate or not — Is the hearing world out of sync with the nonhearing? Does the experience of the hearing audience in such straits echo the experience of the nonhearing, faced with bad closed captions? — it just doesn’t work here. The sappy songs by Stevie Wonder and Wings don’t help, nor does Branford Marsalis’s tepid incidental music. It all feels more like a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie of the week than a Broadway production with lofty ticket prices. Tony, Obie, Drama Desk, and Emmy winner Derek McLane’s set consists of multiple open doorways that lead nowhere, least of all the exit. The title of the play comes from the “Passing of Arthur” section of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which now doubles as the passing of this well-meaning but hackneyed revival, after a mere 23 previews and, coincidentally enough, 54 regular performances at Studio 54.
205 West 46th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 18, $48-$149
While most people can’t wait for summer to finally begin, those inside the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre can’t wait for it to end. No, we’re not talking about the balmy season but Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, the seriously misguided Broadway show about the Queen of Disco. The bombastic mess disjointedly tells the story of Boston-born LaDonna Adrian Gaines, a young church singer who quit high school to become a star, and what a star she became. Changing her name to Donna Summer, she was taken under the wing of Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart (Aaron Krohn) and Italian producer and composer Giorgio Moroder (Kaleigh Cronin) and released a slew of dance-hall hits, from “Love to Love You, Baby,” “Bad Girls,” and “Hot Stuff” to “She Works Hard for the Money,” “Dim All the Lights,” and “Heaven Knows,” among others. The tepid, cliché-ridden book, written by Colman Domingo (Wild with Happy, A Boy and His Soul), Robert Cary (Flashdance, Grease Live!), and Des McAnuff (Doctor Zhivago, Jersey Boys), does touch on some of the more dramatic moments of Summer’s life, including being abused by a priest, stalked by a fan, and treated unfairly as a woman in the record industry, but it overdoes its hero-worshipping theme, literally putting Summer up on a pedestal time and time again.
Summer is portrayed by three actors: Storm Lever (Freaky Friday, The Wringer) as the young Duckling Donna, Ariana DeBose (A Bronx Tale, Hamilton) as Disco Donna, and Tony winner LaChanze (The Color Purple, Once on This Island) as Diva Donna. They each have spectacular pipes, but nearly every number is cut into with plot details so very few songs are heard straight through from beginning to end, sapping the life from even the most dynamic numbers. The ensemble consists primarily of women who perform the roles gender-neutral: They do a whole lot of voguing when not portraying men, not entirely successfully. Also in the cast are Ken Robinson (The Color Purple, Memphis) as Donna’s father, Drew Wildman Foster (Doctor Zhivago, Sunset Boulevard) as Donna’s first husband, Helmuth Sommer, and Jared Zirilli (Lysistrata Jones, Romance Language) as Summer’s second husband, Bruce Sudano. Two-time Tony winner McAnuff’s staging does indeed feature disco balls but nothing very memorable; Tony nominee Sergio Trujillo’s (Memphis, On Your Feet!) choreography is less than dazzling, save for some late spinning by DeBose, who seemed to let it all out despite a program insert saying she would not be performing fully because of an injury. Even Paul Tazewell’s sequin-heavy costumes fail to inspire; early on, Diva Donna has to ask the audience what it thinks of her blue gown in order to get applause. The theater is so packed with Summer devotees that very often the first notes of a song are met with cheers as it becomes recognizable, as if this were a concert, not a Broadway musical. But heaven knows it is a Broadway musical, with expensive tickets, and all of us work hard for our money, too hard to spend it on a show that’s just not hot stuff.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have an embarrassing public confession to make: I have not read a single page of any Harry Potter book, nor have I seen any of the films. But that didn’t prevent me from having a jolly good time at Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the two-part, nearly $70 million extravaganza that is scheduled to run at the completely refurbished Lyric Theatre through May 2019. Yes, there were plenty of occasions when many audience members, including lots of kids in Potter garb, laughed, gasped, sighed, and applauded for reasons unbeknownst to me, but Tony winner Tiffany (Once, Black Watch) does an excellent job of making Potter neophytes feel more than welcome; in addition, a cheat sheet in the Showbill identifies the main characters and outlines the timeline of events from the books. The five-hour epic was written by Jack Thorne, based on an original story by Potter creator J. K. Rowling, writer Jack Thorne, and Tiffany. The show begs everyone who sees it to #KeepTheSecrets, and I fully intend to; any character- or plot-related information I divulge can be found on the official website, so I will do my best to give away nothing more.
If you don’t want to know anything about the plot or which characters are even part of the story, you should skip this paragraph, but it could serve as necessary context for those unfamiliar with the Potter universe. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child takes place nineteen years after the seventh and final book, 2007’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry (Jamie Parker) is married to Ginny (Poppy Miller) and working at the Ministry of Magic. They have three children, the youngest being Albus (Sam Clemmett), who is not particularly thrilled to bear the legacy of his legendary father. That’s all the specifics you’re going to get out of me, except that Noma Dumezweni is Hermione Granger, Paul Thornley plays Ron Weasley, Alex Price is Draco Malfoy, and Anthony Boyle is terrific as his son, Scorpius. The cast also includes Jessie Fisher, Susan Heyward, Geraldine Hughes, Edward James Hyland, Byron Jennings, and David St. Louis in key roles, but to tell you who they’re portraying would give far too much away. Suffice to say that Thorne and Tiffany do a great job of giving everyone their due.
The play builds steadily, with each act more exciting than the previous one, although there is some repetition, in addition to more than a bit of questionable science regarding the time-space continuum. Christine Jones’s sets, which range from the Hogwarts facade to the Forbidden Forest, from a Quidditch match to platform 9¾, change with the help of a large ensemble cast in full costumes (by Katrina Lindsay), moving across the stage to music by Imogen Heap in choreographed near-dances by Steven Hoggett, involving suitcases, a rolling ladder, and other objects in fun ways; you’ll expect the players to break out into song at any moment, but fortunately they don’t. As the tension grows, so does the magic (designed by Jamie Harrison), which is primarily analog, avoiding too much high-tech, although there are moments of dazzling projections, shifting characters, and — well, I’m not going to tell you about that, or that, or that, either, but you’ll love it. Be sure to wander around the lobby during intermission, where there are lots of visual treats, from the wallpaper to the carpeting. One of my favorite moments actually occurred outside the Lyric, which features a glowing billboard and a child in a nest high above. I had arrived at the theater early so watched the crowd as it lined up and prepared to go through the scanners. I then saw one of the actors walking down the street and approach the stage door. The security guard asked a small group of costumed girls to wait as the actor went into the theater. The girls paid the actor no mind; little did they know that pure evil had just made room for pure evil. Such are the many secrets of this clever little play, which took London by storm and is now doing the same on Broadway.
249 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 6, $59-$169
Pardon the pun, but the matinee I saw of the Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s beloved Carousel at the Imperial Theatre had more than its share of ups and downs, including something I had never before experienced in a theater. About ten minutes into the first act, which begins with a beautiful dialogue-free ballet with gorgeous new choreography by New York City Ballet soloist and resident choreographer Justin Peck, a loudspeaker announcement asked the actors to leave the stage due to a medical emergency in the audience. Theater personnel and doctors tended to an ill man at the far right side of the orchestra for about fifteen minutes before the show resumed, restarting shortly before the place where it had been stopped. Later, about ten minutes into the second act, during what is the emotional high point of the narrative, cries of help could be heard from a few rows behind where I was sitting. Again, the voice came over the loudspeakers, asking the cast to leave the stage because of another medical emergency. This time it appeared to be a small child choking; it took another ten minutes or so for things to calm down as the boy, who seemed to be okay, and his family were escorted into the lobby. Again, the show then restarted a moment before it had been stopped. It is a tribute to the cast and crew that both situations were handled gracefully and professionally, but it’s still an unusual occurrence that left an uncomfortable aura in the air — much as the plot of Carousel does, especially today.
The production itself, directed by three-time Tony winner Jack O’Brien (The Coast of Utopia, Hairspray), with splendid costumes by Oscar and Tony winner Ann Roth (The English Patient, The Nance), lovely sets (the carousel itself earns deserved applause) by four-time Tony winner Santo Loquasto (Café Crown, Hello, Dolly!), and wonderful orchestrations by EGOT winner Jonathan Tunick (Titanic, A Little Night Music), is first-rate all the way, even with some critical miscasting and the always problematic second act. The plot, adapted from the 1909 Hungarian play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár, is the classic tale of a good girl falling for a bad boy and trouble ensuing. Local mill worker Julie Jordan (Jessie Mueller) is attracted to carousel operator Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry), agreeing to meet him one night in a park. She brings along her best friend and coworker, Carrie Pipperidge (Lindsay Mendez), who is not sure this is the best idea. Billy arrives, proving to be a bit of a cad, but even when a policeman (Antoine L. Smith) advises Julie of Billy’s questionable dealings with other women, she can’t stop herself, risking her job and more to be with him. Meanwhile, Carrie is in love with the much less dangerous wannabe herring king, Enoch Snow (Alexander Gemignani). Billy and Julie marry and have a child, but money is scarce, so when Jigger Craigin (NYCB principal dancer Amar Ramasar) approaches Billy with a plan to make a quick buck, Billy takes the chance, and tragedy follows.
The immensely talented Mendez (Significant Other, Dogfight) is charming as the dependable Carrie; Gemignani (Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd) is terrific as her beau, forward-thinking in business and woefully conservative otherwise; Tony winner Mueller (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Waitress), who played Carrie to Kelli O’Hara’s Julie in a 2013 Live from Lincoln Center concert version with the New York Philharmonic, again shows off her marvelous voice and wide-eyed innocence; retired opera star Renée Fleming excels as seaside spa owner Nettie Fowler; Margaret Colin (Defiance, The Columnist) is effective as carousel owner Mrs. Mullin; and Tony nominee John Douglas Thompson (Jitney, The Emperor Jones) is stoic as the mysterious Starkeeper, who keeps watch over all the goings-on until getting more involved in the fantastical second act. But two-time Tony nominee Henry (The Scottsboro Boys, Violet) is out of place, like he’s in a different show, his anger and rage so overwhelming that it becomes hard to imagine why Jessie first falls for him, then stays with him. O’Brien doesn’t shy away from the domestic abuse subplot, although it is difficult to watch in the #MeToo generation. “I knew why you hit me. You were quick-tempered and unhappy. That don’t excuse it. But I guess I always knew everything you were thinking,” Julie says, while Nettie sings, “What’s the use of wond’rin’ if he’s good or if he’s bad. He’s your feller, and you love him — that’s all there is to that.” The show debuted on Broadway in 1945 and has been revived in 1957 and 1994, in addition to being made into a film in 1956; it features such timeless songs as “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as well as an emotional ballet in the second act that begins as a solo, performed here by NYCB principal dancer Brittany Pollack. But the scenes involving heaven feel dry and stale, detracting from the otherwise powerful, earthy story. This Carousel reaches for the brass ring but comes up too short.
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 31, $99 - $199
Last year the August Wilson Theatre was home to Groundhog Day, an outstanding, underappreciated musical based on Harold Ramis’s 1993 hit comedy. It’s nearly déjà vu all over again as the theater is now the residence of another outstanding musical version of a beloved film, Mean Girls; however, with tickets currently available through March 2019, it may be there a whole lot longer than Groundhog Day was. And like its predecessor, Mean Girls gets just about everything right; the only thing clearly missing are cheese fries at the concession stand. Mark Waters’s 2004 film about a new girl experiencing all the awful trials and tribulations of high school was written by Tina Fey, who also wrote the book of the musical, doing a superb job of reimagining and updating the story for the Broadway stage, at least until the disappointingly sappy ending. The show opens with outcasts Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson) and Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) warning the audience about what they are going to see. “It’s a cautionary tale / of fear and lust and pride, / based on actual events / where people died,” the proudly gay Damian sings. Offbeat artist Janis adds, “No one died. / But how far would you go / to be popular and hot? / Would you resist temptation?” After growing up in Kenya with her crunchy archaeologist parents and a vast array of animal friends, Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) is thrilled to go back to the States for high school with other teenagers — but she quickly learns that it’s survival of the fittest, not all that less brutal than the animal kingdom, as packs are formed, turf is defended, and prey is attacked. When Cady is asked to sit with the Plastics — the cool-chick clique run by the vain and nasty Regina George (Taylor Louderman), with her loyal sidekick Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and the not-too-bright sexpot Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell) — Damian and Janis try to convince her not to. “Regina George is not cool! She’s a scum-sucking fart-mouth life ruiner!” Janis declares, then asks Cady to spy on the Plastics for them. Cady doesn’t want to be a mole, but she’s so desperate to be accepted at school that she decides to go along with it. And the more she learns about the Plastics, the more she learns about herself, and life, and not always liking what she discovers.
Mean Girls is a bittersweet, raucous tale of fitting in, whether child or adult. “Where do you belong?” Damian sings early on. “We all get a box / That’s where we go / It’s stifling / But at least you know / So, where do you belong?” The lyrics, by Tony nominee Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde, The Explorers Club), don’t fit in a box either, nor does the music, by Emmy winner Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband), ranging from rock to rap. (The orchestrations are by John Clancy.) Fey brings the classic tale of the new girl into the present, incorporating environmentalism and cyber bullying as well as a modern-day feminist angle, with her trademark fresh but sharp sense of humor. Henningsen (Les Misérables, Dear World) is delightful as Cady, the role famously played by Lindsay Lohan in the film, making it her own. Louderman (Kinky Boots, Bring It On), plays the devilish Regina to the hilt, with outrageously funny support from Park as Gretchen, who brings down the house with “What’s Wrong with Me?,” trying to find her own identity, and Rockwell (Bring It On, Rock of Ages) as Karen, who gives a nice twist to the dumb blonde stereotype. Tony nominee Kerry Butler (Xanadu, Disaster!) does triple duty as Cady’s mom, calculus teacher Ms. Norbury (played by Fey in the film), and Regina’s ultrachic mother, who gets to utter, “We haven’t had new meat in our little lady taco in so long!” Weed (Lysistrata Jones, Cabaret) and Henson (The Book of Mormon) make a great team as Janis and Damian, guiding Cady, and the audience, through the horrors of high school; the two characters would fit right in if there were a remake of The Breakfast Club. The all-around strong cast also includes Kyle Selig as Aaron Samuels, Regina’s ex-boyfriend who takes a liking to Cady; Cheech Manohar as Kevin Gnapoor, Mathlete extroardinaire; and Rick Younger as Mr. Duvall, the beleaguered principal.
Fey leaves in most of the key quotes from the film without merely rehashing the movie. Tony-winning director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Aladdin) maintains a frenetic pace with near-constant movement as background characters don’t just stand still and two-time Tony winner Scott Pask’s (The Book of Mormon, The Pillowman) fab set keeps changing, from schoolrooms to bedrooms, bathrooms to locker rooms. The video design, by Tony winner Finn Ross and Adam Young, wonderfully captures the tumult and gestalt of the modern-day teenager, as updated references ring true and secrets and shaming are shared on social media. “It’s just . . . sometimes I feel like an iPhone without a case,” Gretchen explains. “Like, I know I’m worth a lot, and I have a lot of good functions, but at any time I could just shatter.” But there are also plenty of truths that have not changed over the years, regardless of technological advances or changing sociopolitical standards and mores. “I just wish we could all get along like we used to in elementary school,” a teary girl says. “I wish that I could bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles, and we could all eat it and be happy.” (Good luck with that.) Oh, and, of course, watch out for that bus, and if you’re going on a Wednesday, be sure to wear pink.