Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Occasionally, a loner or nerd–through some exceptional occurrence–might rise to the top tier. (This is the case in Dear Evan Hansen, currently playing at BroadwaySF's Orpheum Theatre: former loner and misfit Evan Hansen becomes a social media phenomenon and goes from the bottom caste to the very pinnacle of popularity.)
Mean Girls, whose touring production opened Wednesday night at BroadwaySF's other big house, the Golden Gate, goes much deeper into the "rules" of high school hierarchies. Where Dear Evan Hansen presents the social structure of high school merely as a backdrop for the plot, Mean Girls takes an almost anthropological approach to the nature of popularity and social standing among teens.
The structure that bookwriter Tina Fey (she of "Saturday Night Live" fame) has created is a perfect framing for us to learn how the world modern teens (and probably even pre-modern teens) inhabit is navigated by various types. Her plot is based on a classic dramatic trope: the fish out of water. In this case, the fish is Cady Heron (English Bernhardt), a girl who has spent her childhood in Kenya with her biologist parents who homeschooled her and are now moving back to Chicago. The opening scene–a sort of send up of Julie Taymor's The Lion King, with actors portraying animals in costumes significantly more homespun than Taymor's–establishes a hierarchy that mirrors what Cady will soon experience in the halls of Chicago's North Shore High School: predators eat; prey get eaten. On her first day in school, when introduced by a teacher, one of the boys in class hollers "Take your top off!"
But Cady is taken under the wing of two of North Shore's second-tier players: Damian (Eric Huffman), the gayest kid in school, and Janis (Adriana Scalice, understudying for Lindsay Heather Pierce), a talented artist. These two guide Cady through the school's various cliques in the number "Where Do You Belong?" (Music is by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin.)
The staging (by Scott Park) and lighting (by Kenneth Posner) are marvelously flexible, with an arcing array of projection surfaces that become everything from the African savanna to high school hallways to classrooms to kids' homes. The students' desks are all on casters, allowing director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw to keep the action moving briskly along. Even at nearly 2.5 hours, the show never lags.
When the school's "apex predator" (so dubbed by Cady, based on her experiences with the animals in Africa) Regina George (Nadina Hassan)–with cheekbones that could split kindling–appears, she's fascinated by the new girl and invites her to have lunch with her troika of the uber-popular "Plastics": Regina; her needy sidekick Gretchen Wieners (Mary Beth Donahoe, understudying for Jasmine Rogers); and prototypical ditz Karen (Megan Grosso, understudying for Morgan Ashley Bryant), who occasionally likes to comb her hair with a fork. Janis and Damian encourage her to accept this invitation so Cady can report back with dirt on the girls who rule North Shore High.
Over the course of the school year, Cady learns her lessons on how to get along a little too well and becomes a bit of an apex predator herself. But unlike in actual high school, Cady comes around and helps everyone learn to accept themselves without judgement or shame.
The cast–even with five understudies stepping in–is solid, though some of the female voices can veer into shrieks at times. The dancing is terrific: energetic and precise, though Nicholaw's choreography isn't up to his usual, inventive standard. It's best in the first act, especially in a scene in the school cafeteria, where trays stand in for feathered fans like something out of the Ziegfeld Follies.
High school may be hell, but thanks to Tina Fey's wit and insight, Mean Girls uses the horror to entertain us by letting us peek inside the social structure of teenager-dom–all the while protected behind theatre's fourth wall.
Mean Girls runs through February 26, 2023, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $66.50 - $174.50. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visit broadwaysf.com.