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’Mean Girls’ musical at the Straz brings the movie into 2020

The adaptation successfully updates Tina Fey’s 2004 movie to mesh with the age of social media. | Review
Danielle Wade, Megan Masako Haley, Mariah Rose Faith and Jonalyn Saxer in the nationally touring company of the musical "Mean Girls." The role of Regina George was played by English Bernhardt, not Faith, for the Feb. 18 performance. [Courtesy of Joan Marcus]

TAMPA — Despite the 16-year gap between Mean Girls the movie and Mean Girls the musical, the stage adaptation whisks the story into the digital age while preserving some of the film’s iconic moments and lines.

Mean Girls, based on Tina Fey’s sharp comedy about the perils of high school, played for an enthusiastic, packed house at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. The crowd encompassed all generations.

Fey and her husband, composer Jeff Richmond, adapted the movie into a musical in 2017. Fey’s sharp wit, matched by that of lyricist Nell Benjamin, brings the plot into present day, laden with references to contemporary culture. Their writing and Richmond’s command of musical styles easily transition the script into a production that stands on its own.

Related: ‘Mean Girls the Musical’ at the Straz revisits a cult classic

It has 20 musical numbers, a heavy song-to-dialogue ratio, but many concepts are neatly written into the songs. The score, played by a live ensemble, ranges from over-the-top show tunes to hip-hop to power rock to African-inspired drum music. Cast members all sing with incredible force. The energetic choreography is equally diverse — often at its best when emulating wild animals — and cleverly incorporates set changes.

The plot follows Cady Heron (pronounced like Katie and played by the flawless Danielle Wade), the new girl at North Shore High School, who has just moved from Kenya, Africa, where her parents were research scientists. She’s a babe in the woods with no idea how to navigate the social hierarchy of high school.

She’s befriended by “art freaks,” angry Janis ( the powerful Mary Kate Morrissey) and drama geek Damian (played with fantastic flair by Eric Huffman), who introduce her to the school’s many social circles with Where Do I Belong? Among cellphone-wielding students are rich stoners, gangster wannabes, woke seniors and the Mathletes, headed by the hip-hop-loving Kevin Gnapoor (the feverish Kabir Bery).

They encounter the Plastics, a loathed clique headed by popular, cruel and feared Regina George (English Bernhardt). Meet the Plastics begins with James Bond villain-style big horns and an introduction to Regina in which Bernhardt slinks around the stage, oozing fierceness. “I’m, like, drunk with power,” she sings. “The whole school wants to hump my leg, like a chihuahua.”

Megan Masako Haley, Mariah Rose Faith, Jonalyn Saxer, Danielle Wade and the national touring company of "Mean Girls." The role of Regina George was played by English Bernhardt, not Faith, for the Feb. 18 performance. [Courtesy of Joan Marcus]

Her minions include the obsequious Gretchen (played with spot-on desperation by Megan Masako Haley), who’s always staring at her phone and worried that Regina’s mad at her. Sweet, ditzy Karen (Jonalyn Saxer) got big laughs for her comedic timing and breathy voice.

When the Plastics take an interest in Cady, Janis and Damian concoct a plan to have her infiltrate the group. When they begin hanging out at Regina’s house, her desperate-to-be-cool mom (Gaelen Gilliland, who effortlessly plays multiple roles) finds her Burn Book while cleaning out a closet. The scrapbook is filled with pictures of classmates captioned with cruel comments.

The Burn Book is the crux of the conflict in the film. Treating the book as a kind of a relic in the musical was a clever way to retain it without derailing the plot into something purely driven by social media. The “pages” get a digital update with social media profile pictures and insults like “vegan freak,” “zero likes” and “basic AF.”

Things take a turn when Cady develops a crush on Regina’s ex-boyfriend, Aaron (the affable Adante Carter). Her plan to take down the Plastics unravels and lessons are learned, but not before things get critical.

While pervasive bully culture keeps Mean Girls relevant, the musical makes changes reflective of the strides we’ve made. In Stop, a classic Broadway-style song about impulse control and poor decisionmaking, Karen sings about sending nude photos to a boyfriend that end up on an underage porn site.

On opening night, when she stopped and said, “Maybe we should teach boys not to do that in the first place,” the audience cheered and woo-ed like it was Showtime at the Apollo.

There were many moments when the audience reacted so effusively. It’s proof that whether in film or on stage, Mean Girls remains a cultural phenomenon that leaves people, as Regina George would say, obsessed.

IF YOU GO

Mean Girls

Runs through Feb. 23. $51 and up. David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. For showtimes, visit strazcenter.org.

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