Wednesday night was a homecoming at the Academy of Music for local prodigy Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, and this national touring production (playing through Dec. 1), is a fine account of a musical that’s getting better and better.
Plenty has changed, and for the better, since Mean Girls debuted on Broadway in March 2018. What was once a too-anxious-to-please gallop, bent on blasting you out of the theater, is now a personable, confident display of Fey’s sparkling book and Nell Benjamin’s lyrics.
Cady Heron (apparently omnipotent Danielle Wade) moves from Kenya to North Side High in Chicago. Amid a hilarious send-up of The Lion King, Cady sings to the wild animals: “You’re killers, but I’m going to miss you guys.”
In her new high school, the call of the wild is “New kid sucks!” Cady is adopted by her “starter companions,” two differently-oriented kids named Damian (a splendid Eric Huffman) and Janis (Mary Kate Morrissey, with two-toned hair, body tats, and defiant voice). They’ll help her contend with “the need to belong that roars in us all.”
But Cady immediately falls into the clutches of Regina George (Mariah Rose Faith, great as both the icy destroyer-goddess and her later, chastened self) and followers Gretchen (Megan Masako Haley) and Karen (Jonalyn Saxer). Let the caustic manipulation begin.
Damian and Janis are by far the most interesting characters. I wish they had their own musical. With his indestructible smile, wisdom, and explosive dancing, Huffman-as-Damian teaches Cady how to live without worrying what others think. So does Janis in her own way.
The company is more than up to Casey Nicholaw’s athletic choreography. Standouts are many, including Kabir Bery as Kevin G, a “mathlete” and hip-hop wannabe; and ensemble member Mary Beth Donahoe, a storyteller through likeable, expressive dance.
But the great storytellers here are the scenic and video design. Scott Pask earned a Tony nomination for the scenic design, and Finn Ross and Adam Young’s projected video backdrops whisk us in breathtaking TV-like wipes and washes from Kenya to high school to party to bedroom.
The hilarious tune “Revenge Party” unleashes a candy-colored cascade of Regina-headed balloons. In “More is Better,” Cady lies in bed missing Kenya: “So many stars at night/ But here there’s so much light/ I see them less now.” Her bed floats in a surround of stars.
Jeff Richmond is spouse of Fey and composer for Mean Girls. The national tour makes clear the show has at least five really good songs. “Fearless” is a powerhouse, benefiting from its reprise, as does “What’s Wrong with Me?,” an ironic theme song. “Stupid with Love” concerns a predicament common to both teens and non-teens. “Apex Predator” stretches the evolutionary theme in funny directions.
And “Stop” is a masterpiece, about fighting obsessive-compulsive behaviors, starting with cell phone use: “When you send five texts/ And you get none back/ So you want to send a sixth one/ Stop/ You gotta stop.”
A lot of theatergoers were wearing pink for opening night Wednesday, ready to laugh at the hallowed one-liners (T-shirts were for sale saying SHE DOESN’T EVEN GO HERE). Judging from the raucous response, the crowd got what it hoped for.
Through Dec. 1 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St.