APPLETON, Wis. (WFRV) – The show is called “Mean Girls.”
It’s a meanie, all right.
All sorts of nastiness is in its story, presented with splash and energy and high-tech visual luster and sky-high singing.
For Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, “Mean Girls” marks the end of a season that tried to throw off the meanness of COVID-19.
This production was canceled six months ago, then un-canceled to performances in the end of August, when the center normally is shut.
Because of travel distance to get from Houston, Texas, to Appleton, one performance was trimmed from the local run.
Result: “Mean Girls” opened Wednesday to a near full house and a standing ovation, with the seven-performance run to Sunday, Aug. 28, being close to a sellout of approximately 14,000 patrons.
There is one hint of COVID-19’s presence affecting the tour in the recorded introductory announcement. Tina Fey, the creative whiz who wrote the book, makes reference to audience members watching the show while wearing masks and having bad breath (supposedly being humorous), though hardly anyone in attendance Wednesday wore a mask. The announcement, recorded back when there was more of a concern, probably seemed dated to the audience.
One of the interesting sidelights of this visit for the tour is the printed program, which comes in two parts. One part is the entire program from the original date the show was to play at the PAC. Stapled into the center is a 16-page section, including that cast, photos and bios. Now stuffed into the middle of the entire book – kept for economic reasons – is an updated 16-page section with the current cast, photos and bios; seven of the 16 characters have different actors. The book combination gives a glimpse into how touring companies evolve as contracts are up or other circumstances arise over the months of a tour.
This may seem to be neither here nor there, except this company performs seamlessly through all sorts of dance and vocal requirements. This is a busy show, and quality control seems high.
The subject matter is a bit iffy at times. Suggestive sexual matters are flipped in casually, apparently to represent the care-less ways of high school days of some adventurously hormonal students. And there is a wild party at a home with the parents away – booze and body language all around in happy hedonistic hoorah-ing. Coarse seems to be celebrated in this piece of entertainment. Dull it is not.
Windy it is. Much quick, layered upon layered maneuvering takes place as the plot strives to congeal toward a climax with an obligatory message that simmers down to the good ol’ “To thine own self be true.”
There is another matter with “Mean Girls.” This: “The story is set in what amounts to be Worst Case Scenario High School. Bullying. Salacious behavior. Obscene gestures. Intimidation. Arrogance. Cockiness. Meanness. Domination.” That is from my review of the October 2021 production of “Heathers” by Impact Theatre Company in Fond du Lac. “Heathers” and “Mean Girls” are of similar cloth. Central are a dominating school queen – trend setter, rule maker, intimidation master – and two copycat companions. In “Mean Girls,” the heroine listens to voices of advice – seemingly for good – and becomes the clone evil queen… until she sees the errors of her ways and sings the sweetest song in the show.
At the same time, the production is impressive.
There’s a lot of dazzle in the characterizations. Nadina Hassen is the ice queen, Regina, in look, style and chilling demeanor. English Bernhardt is Cady, the innocent thrown to the nasty masses in school who is lured to wrong turns until shown a corrected map delivered by the law. Eric Huffman and Lindsay Heather Pearce are Cady’s guideposts, a couple of artistically minded truth seekers/sayers. Jasmine Rogers and Morgan Ashley Bryant, as Regina’s minions, add layers of sorrowful wannabe-ism (“What’s Wrong with Me?”) and pleasant shallowness, respectively.
Dance sections abound, with a lot of brass in the background driving the athleticism and all-out mass choreography by the corps.
The singing is uniformly strong. The cast is loaded with female voices with power in the high notes – as if helium is at work – and intensity in the lyrics.
Setting “Mean Girls” aside from many shows is the use of projected animation. There are scene changes with some props and set pieces – fascinating when the Cady’s parents’ house is created in a few moments – but the visuals are “Oh, holy cow.” Often, a backdrop arrives as if an imaginary giant brush is stroked across one’s field of vision, and a new image or color or scene or collage or set of photos or blocks of statements or visual/colorific razzle dazzle has appeared in seconds. Visual pop enhances story content.
On opening night Wednesday, portions of the audience played a role. Cheers arose for some arrivals – probably recognized from the movie. One burst was right away, for the artsy Janis and Damian at the start and their alert that the story is “a cautionary tale.” And Karen brought cheers as her “Sexy” solo began. Enthusiasm generally was present from the knot of showgoers.
The production feeds on the popularity of the movie “Mean Girls” with energy, sass and eyeball excitement that doesn’t quit.
Running time: Two hours, 37 minutes
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 26; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 27; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 28
Creative: Based on the Paramount Pictures film: book – Tina Fey; music – Jeff Richmond; lyrics – Nell Benjamin; director and choreographer – Casey Nicholaw; music supervision – Mary-Mitchell Campbell; scenic design – Scott Pask; costume design – Gregg Barnes; lighting design – Kenneth Posner; sound design – Brian Ronan; video design – Finn Ross, Adam Young; hair design – Josh Marquette; make-up design – Milagros Medina-Cerdeira; production stage manager – Michelle Dunn; orchestrations – John Clancy; music director – Chris Kong
Cast (in order of appearance)
Damian Hubbard – Eric Huffman
Janis Sarkisian – Lindsay Heather Pearce
Cady Heron – English Bernhardt
Mrs. Heron/Ms. Norbury/Mrs. George – April Josephine
Mr. Heron/Coach Carr/Mathletes Moderator – Iain Young
Kevin G – Kabir Bery
Aaron Samuels – Adante Carter
Martin J – Wesley J. Barnes
Tyler K – Sky Flaherty
Mr. Duvall – Lawrence E. Street
Regina George – Nadina Hassan
Gretchen Wieners – Jasmine Rogers
Karen Smith – Morgan Ashley Bryant
Art Students – Wesley J. Barnes, DeShawn Bowens, Dan Horn
Ensemble – Wesley J. Barnes, Erica Simone Barnett, Noah Blessing, DeShawn Bowens, Brittany Conigatti, Mary Beth Donahoe, Sky Flaherty, Dan Horn, Maya Imani, Asia Marie Kreitz, Olivia Renteria, Sydney Mei Ruf-Wong, Kaitlyn Louise Smith, Iain Young
Orchestra: Conductor/keyboard 3 – Chris Kong; assistant conductor/keyboard 2 – Benedict Braxton-Smith; keyboard 1 – Beth Grimmett-Tankersley; guitar 1 – Andrew Zinsmeister; drums – Dave LeBlanc
Local musicians: Woodwind 1 – Jon Lovas; woodwind 2 – David Erato; trumpet – Brent Turney; trombone – Dave Sawall; guitar 2 – Steven Lewandowski; bass – Mark Urness; percussion – Scott Elford; keyboard sub – Kent Paulsen; local music coordinator – Melissa Gurholt
“A Cautionary Tale” – Janis, Damian
“It Roars” – Cady, Ensemble
“Where Do You Belong?” – Damian, Janis, Cady, Ensemble
“Meet the Plastics” – Damian, Janis, Regina, Gretchen, Karen, Cady
“Stupid with Love” – Cady, Ensemble
“Apex Predator” – Janis, Cady
“What’s Wrong with Me?” – Gretchen
“Sexy” – Karen, Ensemble
“Someone Gets Hurt” – Regina, Aaron, Ensemble
“Revenge Party” – Janis, Damian, Cady, Ensemble
“Fearless” – Gretchen, Karen, Cady, Ensemble
“Stop” – Damian, Karen, Ensemble
“What’s Wrong with Me?” (Reprise) – Gretchen, Mrs. George
“Whose House Is This?” – Kevin G, Cady, Gretchen, Karen, Ensemble
“More Is Better” – Cady, Aaron
“World Burn” – Regina, Ensemble
“I’d Rather Be Me” – Janis, Ensemble
“Fearless (Reprise)” – Cady
“Do This Thing” – Cady, Ms. Norbury, Kevin G, Mathletes, Ensemble
“I See Stars” – Cady, Janis, Full Company
THE VENUE: Thrivent Financial Hall is the main theater of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center at 400 West College Avenue in downtown Appleton. The capacity is 2,072. The seating area is in the shape of a horse shoe, with three balconies following the shape. The stage is 60 feet across and 40 feet high. The décor features Veneciano plaster walls with dark-stained cherry wood. In the oval dome ceiling is a 65-foot-long chandelier that is reminiscent of the Art Deco era. The design includes ruby inserts in the opaque cream-colored glass. Flowing along the walls up to the chandelier are parallel metal pipes as if of a musical instrument. Flat walls in the front third of the hall are salmon colored, while red pleated theatrical curtains dominate the rest of the side walls. The white acoustic wing over the stage looks like the underside of a sci-fi spacecraft. The lobby area consists of lots of geometrics, glass and, on the ground level, a feeling of openness and spaciousness. The exterior of the gray building features gentle curves. A large glass skylight is reminiscent of a human eye.
THE NAME: Thrivent Financial has roots in a life insurance company that was chartered in 1902 as Aid Association for Lutherans, based in Appleton. The corporate name has been Thrivent since 2002.