Review: Mean Girls musical is high energy fun that lacks real depth

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The first hour of Mean Girls The Musical, running at the Jubilee until Sunday, is a blast of pure kinetic musical mayhem.

Casey Nicholaw’s original staging, recreated for this tour by Casey Hushion, is consistently inventive, and his choreography, recreated by John MacInnis, is tirelessly high voltage.

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It begins to be evident in the final 20 minutes of the first act, and especially in the second act, that Nicholaw emptied his bag of tricks early on, so, instead of creating anything new, he simply recycles what he dazzled with initially.

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Mean Girls is the musical version of Tiny Fey’s hit 2004 film, that quickly became, and remains, a cult classic. Fey teamed up with her composer husband Jeff Richmond, and Nell Benjamin, the lyricist from Legally Blonde The Musical, to create an old-fashioned musical about the perils of navigating high school. Think Grease, Hairspray, Disney’s High School Musical and Legally Blonde and you have a good idea of what to expect from Mean Girls.

Cady Heron (Natalie Shaw), a 16-year-old girl who was raised and homeschooled in Kenya, enrols in North Shore High, a public high school in Chicago, so she can learn to be more social. Her guides are Janis Sarkisian (Alexys Morera) and Damian Hubbard (Ethan Jih-Cook) a pair of gay students, who, because they are on the periphery of the school’s social structure, can let her know about all the cliques. They do so in a great number called Where Do You Belong, set in the school cafeteria. It’s a wild Busby Berkeley kind of musical number that ends with the chorus members using their lunch trays as fans.

Janis and Damian also act as the audience’s guide. They can speak directly to the audience, which they do in the clever song  A Cautionary Tale, which tells the audience what to expect from the next 150 minutes, including the revelation that someone is going to be hit by a bus.

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It’s Janis and Damian who alert Cady to the dangerous Queen Bee Regina George (Maya Petropoulos) and her two fawning subordinates, the chronically needy Gretchen (Kristen Amanda Smith), and the bubble-headed blond Karen (Maryrose Brendel). Regina’s arrival does make her seem like an otherworldly siren.

When Regina decides to take Cady into her elite coven, Janis, in particular, sees it as a chance to enact revenge on her former junior high school friend turned mortal enemy setting several plots into frenzied motion.

Mean Girls
0118 mean girls Natalie Shaw plays new high school student Cady Heron in Mean Girls Jan. 23-28 at Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Credit: Jenny AndersonCourtesy: Broadway Across Canada cal

When Regina takes Cady on a shopping spree, Nicholaw shows how the mall is the Chicago equivalent of a watering hole in Africa. It’s a great parody accompanied by the clever song Apex Predator. The irony is that Cady will eventually be seduced by the ideas of privilege, power and glamour that originally shocked her. She will challenge Regina for the title of Queen Bee. Morera makes Cady’s transformation as believable and effective as it is creepy.

Cady falls for basketball star and fellow math classmate, Aaron Samuels (Joseph Torres) who just happens to be Regina’s former boyfriend and therefore off limits. Aaron is more of a plot device than a character but Torres gives him a kind of dumb jock charm.

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Mean Girls
From left, Kristen Amanda Smith (Gretchen Wieners), Maya Petropoulos (Regina George), Maryrose Brendel (Karen Smith) and Natalie Shaw (Cady Heron) in Broadway Across Canada’s production of Mean Girls. Photo by Jenny Anderson cal

Smith has one of the best solos with What’s Wrong With Me when Gretchen shows how desperate she is to please whoever is in power.

To her credit, Brendel shows that Karen is in charge of her image and her life. Sexy, her tribute to Halloween, is unabashedly silly.

Regina’s big solo, World Burn, is written for the top of Petropoulos’ range and those high notes come across as a bit screechy.

Fey played the math teacher Ms. Norbury in the 2004 film and Kristen Seggio does a credible job of channeling Fey. Justin Phillips adds some good comic relief as the befuddled principal Mr. Duvall.

Morera really belts Janis’s anthem I’d Rather Be Me, and it’s not her fault it’s such a hollow song because all Janis really wants is to be another Regina in punk clothes.

The real scene stealer in this production of Mean Girls is Jih-Cook because he underplays Damian’s flamboyance. He’s charming rather than grating as is the temptation in playing this kind of larger-than-life character. He has confidence, charisma and a solid stage presence, and he does a mean tap dance for Damian’s big production number, Stop, which opens the second half of the show.

Mean Girls should have a long shelf life once it is released for production by community, college and high school groups. It will be a great show for StoryBook Theatre one day. It just feels a little light for the Jubilee.

Mean Girls runs until Jan. 21.

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