Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Broadway in Tucson Review: 'Mean Girls'

 Adapted from the seminal 2004 movie, the touring production of "Mean Girls" elevates the core concept to its absurd magical realism breaking point.

A cavalcade of backstabbing, misdirection and political maneuvering in the cruel halls of North Side HS, the show bursts with personality, inspired performances and energetic choreography. Buttressed by an ever-evolving projection background of Burn Book etchings and social media flame wars, the show rocks with chuckles, swoons and show-stopping tap dance breaks.

The pride that progenitor Tina Fey takes in the production is evident from the radio spots to the pre-recorded introduction, in which she quips that there's no need to film the show, since it was already a movie.

Expertly cast with a cream-of-the-crop selection of possible Broadway superstars in waiting, the show seizes control of the audience with kinetic energy. Even though the story and lesson-driven second act loses some of the charm of the anything-goes opening act, the end result far exceeds the sum of its impressive parts.

The most dynamic force is English Bernhardt, who brings nuance and full-throttle commitment to the lead role of Cady, the outsider who penetrates the social stranglehold of the Plastics as she starts to lose her sense of self in a power-mad lunge at the teenage dream. Able to project wide-eyed wonder, conniving ruthlessness and withering insecurity -- often between dialogue lines -- English displays immense capability and captivating promise.

Nadina Hassan is impressive as Bernhardt's frenemy, Regina, swan diving into the delectable cruelty of the queen bee scrambling to avoid a tumble from grace. Jasmine Rogers delivers a spunky take on unappreciated sidekick Gretchen, and Megan Grosso is sneakily impressive as the doe-eyed Karen, bubbling with pizzazz in deadpan line delivery and flashy dance moves.

The serial scene stealers are the geek chorus of Janis (Lindsay Heather Pearce) and Damian (Eric Huffman), social outcasts who take Cady under their tattered wings, coaxing her to infiltrate the Plastics before snidely bemoaning the monster they create.

Adante Carter is solid as BMOC Aaron, and Heather Ayers channels Fey's cynicism as teacher Ms. Norbury, also ably tackling the roles of Cady and Regina's moms.

A sugary-sweet treat, "Mean Girls" falters only when it gets preachy, stumbling over its core nihilism to spread a weak message of unity and support. The show is at its best when it is cheerfully sadistic, playing to its core strengths. Like its core characters, it proves artfully hilarious at relating vindictive survival skills.

"Mean Girls" plays through April 2 at Centennial Hall. Buy tickets here.

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