mon 15/07/2024

Mean Girls, Savoy Theatre review - standout performances save a thin score | reviews, news & interviews

Mean Girls, Savoy Theatre review - standout performances save a thin score

Mean Girls, Savoy Theatre review - standout performances save a thin score

Fans of the film will love it, but it's like being in a pink fever dream

In the pink: Mean Girls Elèna Gyasi, Georgina Castle and Grace Mouat Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Nothing anybody over the age of 30 says about the new Mean Girls musical, spawn of Tina Fey’s witty script for the 2004 screen sideswipe of that name, will make any difference. As with all things Barbie, the pink madness seems deathless. 

Fey’s takedown of the human jungle that is the US high school has since been regurgitated as a film sequel, a film musical and now this stage musical, originally due here in 2018 but waylaid by lockdown. If you blindfolded me and played me a karaoke backing track of its score, minus lyrics, I wouldn’t be able to tell whether it was from Legally Blonde the Musical (which had the same songwriter, Nell Benjamin) or any of the other big-house pieces that somehow draw in adoring mobs of the young nowadays. 

Granted, Benjamin’s lyrics are at times acid and crisply rhymed; and certain members of the Savoy’s cast — Georgina Castle as queen bee Regina George, Elena Gyasi as Gretchen, her self-doubting drone, Elena Skye as arty boho Janis, Tom Xander as Damian— have strong, belting voices, albeit miked. But the score is relentlessly major-key, often in the same major key, so its poppy perkiness begins to pall after about two numbers. Ditto the dancers, who feel the need to express the huge pleasure they personally are taking in being part of the show (you bet they are), all knowing winks and smiles at the audience, regardless of what their characters need to project.  

The direction and choreography is by Casey Nicholaw, whose fine, inventive work on The Book of Mormon shows him at his best. Here the routines are almost by numbers — all from the High School (Exuberance/Zaniness) catalogue — and he throws in so many different moves, even canteen trays, that your head spins: it’s gym-tastic overload. 

Elena Skye and Tom Xander in Mean GirlsVisually there is no letup, either. Against a rapidly changing flow of back-wall projections, the action is propelled remorselessly forward, as the familiar tale of Cady Heron is told yet again, the loner maths genius from Kenya who lands in North Shore High School, Illinois, desperate to make friends after years of home schooling (“Yeuch”, say the Plastics on hearing that). First she has to master the lingo, all fugly and skanks, then the terrain — not unlike the water-holes of Africa, where the tribes spar and fight. Her natural home is with the Mathletes (“social suicide”), though they possibly aren’t as sad as the white-bread Basics. In this gladiatorial arena, only being a Plastic (“More is always good”, which could be a slogan for this production) will do. Will Cady forget to be a good person and be their prey? 

Fey’s script unfairly rigs this game, forcing a “happy” ending that few young women, I suspect, wholly applaud: who wouldn’t secretly want to be long-legged, blonde Regina, the Barbie-esque bitch who bags the best boyfriends and makes up the rules (no tank tops two days running, wear pink on Wednesdays, sweatpants only on Fridays, etc)? Regina is smart, her putdowns quietly toxic. The script wants us to consider her cruel and undesirable, a ruiner of lives, ultimately punishing her for her treachery and championing kindness. But she seems to be the only one who can see what grown-up life is actually like, where dog regularly eats dog, and responds accordingly. No wonder Cady accepts her friends’ challenge to spy on the Plastics: it’s all too easy to want to be like them. 

Besides, all the Basics are in such poor shape, dumbly blundering through their education in unbecoming kick skirts and sweatshirts. So of course the girls go about lacerating each other as they jostle for position, desperate to be the Spring Fling queen. Only the two gay outliers, Janis and her George-Michael-obsessed friend Damian (Tom Xander), are non-joiners.

Some of the repartee lands well — “Plastics don’t have friends, they just have accessories” — as do the snippy interludes where Damian and Janis turn compere and address the audience with more exposition or commentary. Zoë Rainey (who also plays Cady’s mum and Miss Norbury, the maths teacher) has fun as Mrs George, a grotesque who sucks on gaudy cocktails and tries to get down with the kids, who naturally walk all over her. But there are few moments of calm and/or introspection. It’s like being inside a fever dream. Only a slow-moving sight-gag involving a mobility scooter takes its time to develop.

Daniel Bravo as Aaron and Charlie Burn as Cady in Mean GirlsA handful of standout performances lift the piece into the realm of pure entertainment. Charlie Burn’s Cady has a Lindsay Lohan look about her, though vocally feels a tad underpowered in this lineup; as her love interest, Regina’s ex, Aaron, Daniel Bravo is winningly amiable and unshowy. It’s a believable match. But Castle, who’s like a junior Rosalie Craig, is a commanding Regina, icily slinky until her downfall, after which she manages to milk laughs from disco-dancing in a body-frame. 

Her two sidekicks have strong solo moments in the spotlight: Grace Mouat’s Karen is delightfully as thick as mince, the girl who spells orange with a D in it; and Elena Gyasi’s indiscreet mess, Gretchen, has a firm hand on her role’s comic potential. High marks, too, to Annie Southall as dogged Cameron, who wrenches attention away from the Plastics at the Talent Contest with a turn that ends in immaculately delivered splits. There is also  a wit in the design department, who creates a clothing store called Abernathy and Landfille and an emoji smile that transforms into a vagina dentata.

A great musical, though, it is not. I’m not even sure it is a musical at all in the accepted sense. These reconstituted screenplays are sui generis, neither jukebox nor gig musical nor musical theatre proper. Thankfully, great new musicals are still being created: Hamilton, anybody? Come From Away? Passing Strange? Fun Home? Spring Awakening? Everybody’s Talking About Jamie? But, sigh, the screen-to-stage piece is showing no sign of petering out.

 Mean Girls at the Savoy Theatre

Nicholaw throws in so many moves, even canteen trays, that your head spins

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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