‘Mean Girls’ debuts in Madison, in all its pink and plastic glory

Originally slated to come to town in 2020, this national touring production is at Overture Center through Sept. 4
Mean Girls
Photo by Jenny Anderson

Turns out being forced to adopt the Aaron Burr “wait for it” strategy wasn’t a bad thing for the national touring production of “Mean Girls,” playing in The Overture Center for the Arts through Sunday. Originally slated to hit Madison in 2020, the production got bumped again in January when a few cast members came down with COVID-19. Seven months later, it’s finally here, in all its pink and plastic glory.

As Cady, the homeschooled, bright-eyed heroine and eventual Plastics recruit, English Bernhardt shines like the stars about which she’s so often singing. Her soaring vocals grab the audience from the show’s first number. She also does a better job maintaining sympathy for her character than Lindsay Lohan did in the movie. (And yes, that’s probably hindsight talking.)

It’s not exactly an ideal beginning when an understudy has to step into a major role on opening night, but Iain Young stepped in to play Damian, Cady’s best pal and the show’s “too gay to function” narrator and grew into the role more and more as the show went on. So did his partner in crime, the goth-a-riffic Janis (Lindsey Heather Pierce). The tentative vocals on “Where Do You Belong?” were long gone by the time Pierce capped her performance with a defiant bird flip and trust fall in “I’d Rather Be Me.” Talk about an effective declaration of inner confidence.

Tina Fey’s flick first captured the vicious underbelly of the high-school girls zeitgeist back in 2004, which seems like a lifetime and half ago, even though it’s still firmly embedded in our pop-culture consciousness. This production makes a few attempts to modernize it for the social-media era: Queen Bee Regina George (Nadina Hassam) suffers a Janet Jackson-level wardrobe malfunction during the school’s talent show, a plot point that wasn’t part of the movie, and becomes an immediate source of Instagram fodder. It’s played for cheap laughs, which makes the commentary about the evils of social media bullying that immediately follow it more than a little hard to swallow.

As Regina, relative rookie Hassan has a fab origin story — this is her first national tour. At Tuesday’s opening-night show, she clearly had more than enough vocal power to own “World Burn,” one of the highlights of the second act, but she pushed to the point where her pitch slipped a bit in the ensuing conflagration. Her portrayal of Regina also seemed to have so much less definition than the other Plastics — it was much easier to sympathize with Gretchen (Jasmine Rogers) who ached like a kicked puppy in the gorgeous “What’s Wrong With Me?” and with Morgan Ashley Bryant’s dim-witted Karen, whose character is a lot more self-aware than she first seems.

A wall of video screens does most of the visual heavy lifting, instantly converting the stage from the red skies of Kenya to the grimy halls of North Shore High and adding dopey fun touches to songs like “Sexy,” Karen’s magnum opus. But the high-energy ensemble adds its collective feet to the pedal, too, whirling on and offstage with classrooms desks, mall escalators and whatever else is needed to propel the story forward at maximum clip, trying to jam in as many of the movie’s plot points as possible. The first act sometimes feels like it’s been downing Red Bull, not Kalterra bars, and some of the show’s more popular numbers suffer a little as a result. Speed plus volume plus Overture’s sometimes dicey sound system meant more than a few missed quips and hard-to-hear lyrics.

No matter. There’s more than enough visual and vocal fun to celebrate here. This is a production that’s tried harder than Gretchen to make “fetch” happen, and for the most part, they’ve nailed it.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.

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