The Review: The New Group’s Clueless
“Clueless“, the 1995 film that starred Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Paul Rudd, and Brittany Murphy has always been one of my favorites. Not as perfect as Fey’s high school plastic A-list girl clique, but as structured around Jane Austin’s 1815 novel Emma, leading lady Silverstone shone star-bright as the rich, pretty, blonde, and sassy popular Cher, making the young teenage girl somehow exceedingly likable even when she manipulates people into doing just about anything she wants. I never questioned her sweetheart status while watching her flit around in the film, but after seeing The New Group‘s recreation of the hit film into the too straightforward Clueless, The Musical, penned by the film director, Amy Heckerling (credited with writer/lyrics), I now believe that what Silverstone did was miraculous, beyond compare. Because, as directed with frenetic energy by Kristin Hanggi (Broadway’s Rock of Ages) and choreographed big by Kelly Devine (Broadway’s Come From Away), the musical Cher would fit better over at North Shore High hanging out with the Mean Girls. She wouldn’t be as charming and funny as the pack portrayed by the glorious Taylor Louderman, Ashley Park, and Kate Rockwell, but as played by Disney star Dove Cameron (Netflix’s Dumplin’) at Pershing Square Signature Center, she’s basically just a spoiled brat who really isn’t all that likable or kind. She’s definitely not rad enough to drag this cringe-worthy musical out of its messy by the books wordplay of nonsense.
I’m not saying that Cameron isn’t immensely talented, “as if”, because she’s a gorgeous young woman, gifted with a strong powerful voice and presence, and one kick ass body. But somewhere in the manic energy created by Devine and Hanggi, saddled with some of the silliest lyrics shoved awkwardly inside a non-stop avalanche of 1990’s pop music classics including “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia, “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child, and “Beautiful Life” by Ace of Base, she has been shaped into something that Alicia avoided with miraculous ease. And Zurin Villanueva’s (Broadway’s Mean Girls) BFF Dionne doesn’t help with the lightweight ick factor. Both are painfully superficial and shallow, and somehow even Tai, played hilariously by Ephie Aardema (Broadway’s The Bridges of Madison County) the out of her depth new gal in Beverly Hills, never manages to pull anyone up out of the trap that the movie avoided with honor.
The one cute bright spot falls on the brainy Josh, played winningly by the adorkable Dave Thomas Brown (Broadway’s American Psycho) giving good-natured fun to a role that fit Rudd as perfectly as it does Brown Christian, the new gay kid in town, played by Justin Mortelliti (Broadway’s Escape to Margaritaville) does a fine job in the small almost throw away part, although misses the mark on youthful cool discomfort by a few years. With his inclusion, the musical feels like it’s following the marked out steps of the film too closely, failing to find inventiveness in its plot lines, and merely giving us all the ingredients that the movie offered without much a reason beyond that. It’s something Mean Girls, Heathers: The Musical, Legally Blonde, and others somehow avoided.
On a flat and busy set created by Beowulf Boritt (Broadway’s Bernhardt/Hamlet) with fun straight from the 90’s plaid costumes by Amy Clark (ATC’s Describe the Night), wide-eyed lighting by Jason Lyons (Broadway’s Hand to God), workable sound by Gareth Owen (Broadway’s Summer) and minor level projections by Darrel Maloney (Broadway’s Allegiance), the musical stomps forward recreating each moment of the film in the same by the books manner that dulled the charm of Pretty Woman, the Musical. The music direction by Matthew Smedal (PMP’s The Bodyguard) and the musical supervision, arrangement and orchestration by Ethan Popp (Broadway’s Hedwig) facilitates the pop music that definitely brings the vibe of the 90’s into the theatre, but maybe that solid idea wasn’t executed well enough (or it might just not be as good of an idea as it sounded), forcing some pretty ridiculous lyrics to be sandwiched into the classic sounds. Eyes rolled more than laughs because of the writing, and the energy, even with the talented cast kicking it into high gear at every wheeled-out choreographed turn, never manages to find that adorable flavor and feel that Tina Fey uncovered for her Broadway musical debut. I’d give Heckerling and Cher a “C”, standing firm against the manipulations Cher will probably try to orchestrate on her own behalf. OK, maybe a “C+”, but only if she can find me a husband as cute as Brown.