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Friday, June 22, 2018

Theater Diaries: Mean Girls The Musical That's a Great Play, and Boys in the Band

Cady meets the Plastics, photo @ Joan Marcus
I saw two great plays on Broadway this week. They were funny, witty, insightful, with lines that had that sharp ring of truth that only great wordsmiths can create. Except one was technically a musical.

Mean Girls is a musical adaptation of the 2004 movie. Tina Fey (30 Rock, SNL) wrote the screenplay and adapted the screenplay into a book musical. If I were to judge Mean Girls strictly as a play, it's one of the best plays I've ever seen. Yes much of the book is recycled from the movie, but Fey has updated and tweaked the screenplay into a great stage play. Predictably social media is now a big part of Mean Girls, as are some ad-libbed lines that reflect current popular culture. There is one about J.R. Smith "stepping it up for Lebron" that had the audiences rolling. But the emotional truth of Fey's writing is what makes Mean Girls worth watching. Fey understands adolescence, and understands the terrors that are a part of any high school experience. It's that core of empathy that makes Mean Girls among the best musicals about adolescence. It's certainly better than Grease.



Erika Henningsen as Cady, photo @ Sara Krulwich
I'm a high school teacher and I recognized almost every moment in the musical. I know that in a pack of "mean girls" like The Plastics there's always one Queen Bee (Regina George) and two insecure lemmings (Gretchen and Karen). As a teacher I know that often the best strategy is to befriend the insecure ones, empower them, and thus neutralize the Queen Bee.  I've seen girls act dumb in order to make themselves "attractive" to boys (as Cady does to her math teacher's chagrin) more times than I can count. And the devastation of those "burn books" (or nowadays, usually a cruel social media account that is designed to diss anyone and everyone) is real. And the school clearing brawls because of those social media pages ... real too. I've seen it happen many times. I also liked the fact that educators are portrayed in such a positive light by Fey. Mrs. Norbury the math teacher and Mr. Duvall the principal aren't perfect but they try their best and care about the kids.

If only Fey had found a musical team that could have elevated the "music" part of the musical. The score is by her husband Jeff Richmond, and it's, well, mediocre. The songs are pleasant but forgettable. It's often a form of loud and charmless pop-rock, with none of the subtlety and nuance of Fey's book. Even more mundane are the lyrics by Nell Benjamin. From Fey's now iconic witticisms ("Stop trying to make fetch happen, it's not going to happen!" "Is butter a carb?" "Irregardless, ex-boyfriends are just off-limits to friends. That's just, like, the rules of feminism." "Halloween is the one night of the year when you can dress like a slut and no other girls can say anything about it") we get such inspired lyrics as:

So I will not act all innocent
I won't fake apologize
Let's just fight and make up, and not tell these lies,
Let's call our damage even
Clean the slate till it's like new
It's a new life for me
Where I'd rather be me
I'd rather be me than be with you
"Stop," the big tap number, photo @ Sara Krulwich
There are some good moments in Richmond's score. Casey Nicolaw is the director so you know that he'd include some fun dance production numbers. The best is maybe "Stop," a tap number that also has some witty lyrics like: "Stop/When you're babysitting kids/So you can take their mom's oxy/Stop/Stick to vodka and stop." The song "Apex Predator" is probably the best song of the entire score and it's probably the only melody I could remember. The lyrics for that are killer too, as Cady describes what Regina is in the jungle food chain. For once that pseudo-Katy-Perry musical style is appropriate.

I saw Mean Girls on a night when both Regina (normally Taylor Lauderman) and Gretchen (normally Ashley Park) were out. Their understudies were fine, although Becca Petersen as Regina had slurry diction and Zurin Villanueva came across as too knowing for the innocent Gretchen. As for the regular members: Erika Henningsen (Cady) lacks the winsome charm of Lindsay Lohan (the movie Cady) but has a nice voice. Kerry Butler however was great in the role of both Mrs. Norbury the math teacher and Mrs. Heron and Mrs. George (the moms of Cady and Regina). I also enjoyed the incredible dance skills of Grey Henson as "too gay to function" Damian Hubbard. Kate Rockwell is a bit too mature looking to be believable as the dimwitted teen Karen, but she does act well. However most of the cast was so loudly miked as to be ear-splitting, and almost all of them sing in that nasal Broadway belt that is so abrasive to hear for two and a half hours.

As I said, this was a great play with music that one sort of had to tolerate. I kept thinking what Tina Fey and a reincarnated Cole Porter could have done together. As is, Mean Girls is a cute and enjoyable musical that misses greatness by a large mark.

Playbill signed by Mart Crowley and cast
Two days later I saw the seminal gay play Boys in the Band.  This is the year of seminal gay play revivals. There was Torch Song and Angels in America.  All we need is Normal Heart. Mart Crowley's 1968 play is very much a product of its time. This is the pre-Stonewall era where gays in America did not have a voice. So as you might guess there's a lot of self-loathing, booze, and unpleasantness in the tightly directed two hour play. However there's also a ton of humor, and the audience laughed as much as any audience I've ever seen in a theater. A bonus: Mart Crowley himself was in the audience, came out the stagedoor and signed my playbill.

The OBC made a movie in 1970. I've seen the movie but the live theater experience was so much better, as the audience response to the deadpan humor enhanced the experience. (Sadly, most of the OBC died of AIDS).

Michael's apartment
The production is mostly wonderful. David Zinn's costumes are so on-point period style. The set is a hilariously opulent Manhattan apartment that only Michael Bloomberg could afford. Joe Mantello (who also directed this season's amazing Three Tall Women) is very skilled at bringing the best out of his actors. One thing about Mantello is he doesn't try to shoehorn actors into a uniform acting style, This cast of nine had actors who preferred an extremely naturalistic style (Tuc Watkins as Hank, Brian Hutchinson as Alan, Matt Bormer as Donald, Michael Benjamin Washington as Bernard, Andrew Rannells as Larry) and those who preferred a studied, artificial performance art (Zachary Quinto as Harold, Jim Parsons as Michael, Robin de Jesus as Emory, Charlie Carver as Cowboy).

The birthday party before it turns south, photo @ Joan Marcus
Of the performances I enjoyed Robin de Jesus's Emory, Andrew Rannells' Larry, and Tuc Watkins' Hank the most. de Jesus is a pocket-sized ball of energy who also brings so much heart to a role that can seem like a collection of offensive stereotypes. His excruciating phone call to a childhood crush was the part of the play that touched me the most. I also appreciated Watkins' understated but believable Hank and Rannells' surprisingly low-key but charming Larry. And Brian Hutchinson stuttered admirably in the thankless role of Alan, the ambiguously heterosexual (???) roommate of Michael's. Michael Benjamin Washington also did the most with maybe the worst material out of the 9 characters. It's a weakness of the play that Bernard never comes across as more than the "token" person of color. Charlie Carver as Cowboy the Rentboy that was rented for Harold for his birthday delivered his one-liners with convincing vapidity. Matt Bomer sure was pretty as Donald but he disappeared into the background as the play progressed. He simply couldn't compete with the other actors in terms of stage presence.

A dance party, photo @ Joan Marcus
Unfortunately the weakest links of the cast are maybe the most central: Jim Parsons as Michael and Zachary Quinto as Harold. Parsons as the unemployed writer is great in the "sober" part of the play. He's funny, and his experience in sitcoms makes him great with the one-liners. However once Michael falls off the wagon and becomes a cruel drunk you realize that Parsons simply doesn't have enough depth as an actor to pull this sort of thing off. He delivers his lines well but he just doesn't exude the right level of self-loathing and malice. Zachary Quinto as the "32 year old, pock-marked Jew fairy" on the other hand is too one-note: his Harold starts off nasty, snide and condescending and stays there. There's no reason why anyone would want to spend 5 minutes in his company, much less throw a birthday party in his honor. It would have been better if he started off with a sort of dry wit and gradually put on more and more bitchy airs.

The play is flawed. There's an artificiality to the premise of the play that becomes more intrusive as the evening progresses. The birthday party where no one likes each other is too obviously a plot device. So is the telephone game. So even when the big emotional moments arrive the audience is always too aware of the gears turning. However Crowley like Fey has natural wit, and the humor and sharpness of the writing keep the audience's interest. (One line: "There's one thing to be said about masturbation: you certainly don't have to look your best.") And either way, this seminal gay play deserves to be seen in the theater, warts and all. Compare 1968 to 2018. You see how the LGBT community has more agency and acceptance in America, but how much of the play still rings true. There's still "great work" that needs to be done.

SPOILERS BELOW

The ending is very ambiguous. Alan ends up calling his wife, instead of "Justin Stewart" whom Michael said Alan had an affair with in college. However Michael's devastation over Alan's phone call made me think: is Michael "Justin Stewart"? Was the whole point of the telephone game so Michael would get a call from Alan?

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