Review: Mean Girls by touring company
by Brian Paul Scipione
The city of Austin is fortunate to be a perennial stop for touring Broadway productions. There are nearly thirty different touring productions visiting approximately 240 different cities in the United States in a single year. The newly renovated Bass Concert Hall has all the bells and whistles necessary to accommodate such large performances. It also has recently reconfigured their security, making it much easier to enter the venue which is a greatly welcome alteration—especially considering how many patrons the venue allows (now only if they could execute a similar miracle with the parking situation).
These changes have been a long time in planning and aren’t necessarily tied to the pandemic. They reflect the venue’s desire to keep up with the times. None of this is ground-breaking news per se, but it is analogous to a definitive change in Broadway productions.
The recipe for the spectacle of a Broadway production has always included equal amounts of singing, dancing, costumes, lighting, musical score, and expansive stage sets that are impressive feats of both technology and architectural imagination.
This last ingredient of technical magic is steadily being replaced, however. One only needs to recall the famous boat scene during which the Phantom of Opera sailed Christina through a stunning panorama of softly glowing candles (which required upwards of over 150 trapdoors to pull off) to get an idea of the grandeur to which set designers used to aspire. Modern Broadway has replaced all that with the green screen.
Mean Girls relies heavily on green screen video to provide settings, background, and flashy special effects. Recent productions of The Lion King, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Tootsie also relied on projections to provide an economic (to put it kindly) and mobile set. Modern audiences, long adapted to staring at screens both big and small, probaby haven't noticed this transition.
The touring production of Mean Girls throws in a few desks and a small wooden riser but otherwise eschews most other old-school theatrical devices. This isn't the only major new adaptation. There's an argument to be made that with a set of paradigm shifts, Broadway is now firmly in its 2.0 edition, featuring a welcome change in casting standards, less elaborate choreography, a loosening of classic vocal requirements, and the ever-popular increase in what used to be called tongue-in-cheek humor but is more realistically described as dirty jokes.
When did Era 2.0 begin? You might as well debate the familiar old controversy, "Who's the best rock and roll band of all time—the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?" (Spoiler: it’s The Who.)
Broadway 2.0 may have begun to peep out from behind the Phantom mask in 2011 when the Book of Mormon drew mixed critical reception as well as enormous (and ongoing) ticket sales. Broadway 2.0 has also borrowed a trick from the always avaricious movie industry which continuously hedges its bets by investing in sure things like super-hero movies and remakes.
Outside companies like Netflix have won a lot of praise for financing projects that Hollywood will no long touch (Hey, Netflix, how about a detour onto Broadway?). Naming theremakes that have recently opened on Broadway is unfortunately extremely easy. They include four of the six productions mentioned in this article so far as well as Mrs. Doubtfire, Big, Mr. Saturday Night, Beauty and the Beast, Ghost: The Musical, Leap of Faith, Honeymoon in Vegas, Finding Neverland, Hands on a Hardbody, Rocky, Pretty Woman, Beetlejuice, Carrie, Sunset Boulevard, Hairspray, Billy Elliot, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, School of Rock, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels just to name a few (or a lot).
None of this rant is intended to take away from the production of Mean Girls. It is indeed bare bones, the music is catchy and reminiscent of the cast of Glee performing Wicked, the dancing is great, the costumes are sufficient, and 90% of the comedy is directly sourced from the beloved Mark Waters film. There are some places where it is clear that corners have been cut.
The live band is spot on, but the pre-recorded music is played at a volume that interferes with the singing. As with a lot of recent musicals the standout is a supporting actor. In this case, Morgan Ashley Bryant as Karen Smith is the runaway star, delivering her lines and her songs with heartfelt jubilation.
The chorus didn't seem to have the extremely well-rehearsed polish that used to be the Broadway standard. In general, the cast and producers relied on the material and not the performances to deliver the goods. Even the tap-dancing scene (which is usually the ultimate crowd pleaser) felt phoned in. Yet, the comedic material is strong enough to provide a full night of entertainment.
The Bass Concert Hall audience took a collective intake of breath during the set-up of the classic joke “He asked me what day it was.” It's more likely that this was due to the popular meme than to any evocation of the movie scene.
This brings up another potential meta aspect of the production. Will Broadway's movie adaptions be more popular if the movie has already become a cultural phenomenon? In the case of Mean Girls, the answer is a resounding yes.
Fans of the movie will be pleased. Fans of Broadway 2.0 will also be pleased, but old school fans may want to sit at another table.
August 02 - August 07, 2022
2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Austin, TX, 78712
Broadway in Austin
WHAT: Mean Girls
WHEN: August 2-7 | Tues-Fri at 8 PM | Sat at 2 PM & 8 PM | Sun at 1 PM & 7 PM |
WHERE: Bass Concert Hall | 2350 Robert Dedman | Austin TX | 78712
TICKETS: Start at $55. Tickets are available at https://austin.broadway.com/shows/mean-girls/