You’d like to know if Tina Fey can write a musical. The oh-so-not-surprising answer is, yes: the scary-talented Fey can most certainly write a musical, and a funny one at that. Based on her 2004 film comedy of the same title, “Mean Girls” the musical is a jolt of super-energized adolescent hyper-viciousness, with a snazzy video screenscape thrown in, along with a big chorus of Red Bull-powered hip-hopping high school dancers.
And, of course, Regina.
Regina is the leader of the Plastics, the fashion-obsessed emotional gangsters who rule North Shore High School, tossing snarky insults off as if they were molotov cocktails. As played with piercingly cold sensuality by ideally cast Taylor Louderman — she’s got down the eerie, frozen gaze of a sleek Siberian husky — this Regina is an even more intimidating version of the character Rachel McAdams created in the movie. As her traumatized acolytes, anxiety-ridden Gretchen and dim bulb Karen, Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell make for thoroughly enjoyable semi-hostages to Regina’s hardhearted whims.
The show, which had its official opening Sunday night at Washington’s National Theatre, is headed in the spring to Broadway, where it will find an audience happily responsive to every reference the script makes to the movie — and Fey comes up with some smart new gags, too. This is not to say book writer Fey, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw and, in particular, songwriters Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin don’t have some work to do if “Mean Girls” aspires to an identity as something more than a pleasurable, well-made brand extension. At present, it’s feeling less like an artistic reinvention than a commercial knockoff — less like “Dear Evan Hansen” and more like “School of Rock,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber vehicle that has become a family-friendly Broadway success.
“Mean Girls” does have a stronger spine than a sentimental piece such as “School of Rock”: the soul of Fey’s script is closer to bruised than bubbly. Which partly explains why the roles of the cynical high school outcasts — Barrett Wilbert Weed’s Janis and, especially, Grey Henson’s heaven-sent Damian — are so close to the dark core of this show, with its exploration of the cruelties clique-crazed kids can inflict on anyone who dares to be different. Which goes triply for this rage- and social-media-fueled age.
But the musical has some shoring up to do, principally in a score with too little melodic variation. There’s a redundant quality to some ensemble rock numbers that range from catchy to undistinguished and come one after another: “Revenge Party,” “Justice,” and at the top of Act II, “Bossed Up.” And even more fundamentally, the show reveals a glaring omission, in the lack of a memorable, character-defining song for the evening’s main character, Cady, played with persuasive nice-girl-to-callous-girl pluck by the magnetic Erika Henningsen.
As things stand, we’re required to fall back too heavily on memories of a movie character (assayed by Lindsay Lohan) for hints of Cady’s motivation, why a sensitive girl home-schooled on the African savanna would overnight relinquish her values to sit at the table of the most vacuous teens in her new suburban high school. I mean, we know why — it’s a fantasy concocted for the screen — but a song would bind us to Cady in a way we don’t quite experience yet. A musical of this kind needs to reveal its heart, and this one doesn’t do that adequately. “Stupid in Love,” the tune she sings after meeting the boy of her dreams (suave Kyle Selig) in calculus class, is clever, but not that song.
And speaking of characters and music: where’s the breakout number for Damian? Henson, as the gay kid with the intense George Michael crush and the Oscar Wilde-caliber sense of irony, comes close to walking away with the whole show. You can feel the audience in the National willing a bigger spotlight into being for him. The comically gifted Kerry Butler, meanwhile, who plays all the female grown-ups, gets a song (“Call Your Mother”) that on first hearing is just sort of okay.
Still, a witty groundwork has been effectively laid. The opening number, “Wild Life,” proves a terrific vehicle on which to transport Cady’s backstory. (Although the setup of Janis and Damian telling us that the events we’re about to see occurred the previous school year is odd and a little confusing.) With its cheeky homage to “The Lion King” director Julie Taymor, seguing into a rollicking dance sequence at North Shore High, “Wild Life” splendidly establishes one of the evening’s motifs: that a real jungle has nothing on the hazards of the blackboard jungle.
Or rather, since this is American education in the 2010s, make that the Promethean board jungle: That’s the interactive whiteboard installed in many modern classrooms. Set designer Scott Pask and whiz kid video designers Finn Ross and Adam Young adapt this technology for the physical realm of “Mean Girls,” allowing, via LED graphics, outdoor scenes in the African bush to melt magically into indoor renderings of a school cafeteria. The hybrid animation technique works smashingly for the show, as do Nicholaw’s inspired choreographic conceits: the staging of “Where Do You Belong?,” an early Act I song in which Damian lays out for Cady the mind-numbing array of school factions, is glorious. He spins those all-too-familiar lunchroom tables on wheels around the stage, as ensemble members remake themselves into jocks, nerds and other species of secondary school wildlife. (Also: Wait for the student-dancers to convert their cafeteria trays into semaphore flags.)
Costume designer Gregg Barnes seems to have raided the hippest boutiques for the Plastics, dressing them in pastel bomber jackets and floral miniskirts. Even hip-hop geek Kevin Gnapoor — Kevin G to you, and played with panache by Cheech Manohar — gets a standout look, and moment. Louderman, Henningsen, Park and Rockwell are themselves models of bedazzled teenage ostentation, insecurity, bossiness and need. It’s a harsh environment Fey and company drop them into in “Mean Girls,” and now, with some strategic refinement, their voices, and that world, will only resound more richly and stirringly.
Mean Girls, book by Tina Fey, music by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Music direction, Mary-Mitchell Campbell; sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Brian Ronan; videos, Finn Ross and Adam Young; orchestrations, John Clancy; production stage manager, Holly Coombs; hair, Josh Marquette. With Rick Younger. About 2½ hours. $48-$149, but most performances sold out. Through Dec. 3 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Visit thenationaldc.org or call 202-628-6161.