Translating great movies to the stage runs the curious risk of making them look much smaller. The stage should provide chances for a wider emotional canvas, and movie musicals do sometimes seize on it – think of Once, which suggests Guy and Girl’s desperate longings as representational of all sublimated desire. Less fully theatricalized adaptations may not necessarily be bad. They may be a lot of fun. Still, as with the current Broadway production of Mean Girls, the effect can be like watching an artful marionette recreation. It’s a faithful copy, built with love and performed with care, it just isn’t clear why it exists.
That’s the question with The New Group’s Clueless musical. The movie is, of course, a masterpiece. It is a perfect and timeless work that remains the pinnacle of writer/director Amy Heckerling’s career. Wealthy, well-intentioned Cher Horowitz’s travails through Beverly Hills high school life (loosely modeled on Jane Austen’s Emma) is a story of its time, but the movie shows no signs of age. Heckerling’s involvement in this musical adaptation, which she conceived and wrote, raised my hopes that it might find its own identity. No such luck – Heckerling has more or less placed her movie on stage. All of the classic lines are here – “party with the Haitians,” “two permits do not equal a license,” etc. They still work, of course, because they are brilliant. (Though it’s tough to watch these actors try to find their own spin on the lines – good luck trying to top Dan Hedaya’s delivery.)
The only major addition is, of course, music. Opting against an original score, Heckerling instead uses over 20 seminal ‘90s pop hits – from Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be,” to Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” – while adjusting some lyrics to fit the story: “What if God was one of us” becomes “What if Cher didn’t have a trust,” etc. It sounds horrible when typed out but, honestly, the device ends up working pretty well. There is no denying the pleasure of a frenetic opening sequence scored to Ace of Base’s “Beautiful Life;” or an extended dance break as *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” blares.
If that all sounds misguided, let me assure you that director Kristin Hanggi and choreographer Kelly Devine match the ‘90s pop energy with every staging trick in the book and the effect is undeniably exhilarating. A courtship between two teachers briefly becomes an Rodgers and Hammerstein-style dream ballet; act two opens with a semi-recreation of En Vogue’s “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get it)” music video, complete with gorgeous harmonies. Numbers fly by at a crazy pace, and the ensemble never stops moving. Hanggi and Devine also smartly incorporate Cher’s emotional journey into their work, sometimes isolating her within otherwise uniform ensemble numbers.
Cher is a rich and rewarding character, seemingly superficial but revealing depths of intellect and empathy. Dove Cameron does well by the role, nailing both Cher’s buoyant positivity and, more crucially, her well-hidden loneliness. Of the cast around her, most just do spot-on impressions of their movie counterparts. Only two break free of that constraint: Gilbert L. Bailey II, a thrilling livewire as Dione’s boyfriend Murray, and Dave Thomas Brown, whose weary, jaded Josh makes a nice relief from the otherwise peppy proceedings.
Heckerling’s collaborators ultimately bring a fresher energy to the table than she does, slotting in little touches when they can. Heckerling’s book does expand on a couple elements of the movie: adorable stoner Travis (an underused Will Connolly) gets a number about entering a program to kick his habit and Cher’s failed-conquest-turned-friend Christian (Justin Mortelliti) gets a musicalized coming out scene. In both cases, Heckerling is trying to flesh out characters who, on screen, received a glibber handling. The intention is nice, but these feel like contemporary insertions within an otherwise very ‘90s affair.
The budding romance between Cher and her step-brother Josh, though broadly similar to its movie counterpart, does gain a little depth here. A quiet, tender scene between the two (following an unsuccessful date night for Cher) is a sweet addition, and Josh’s gradual realization of Cher’s intelligence neatly tracks with the audience’s. There are hints here of a different approach Heckerling might have taken – presenting Cher’s story from some new outsider perspective, rather than replicating a screenplay. But hints is all they remain.
For the most part, this is the movie on stage, presented in a truly enjoyable package. That’s more than enough in the moment, but it leaves a poor aftertaste. My mind keeps returning to a scene where Cher, being held at gunpoint, refuses to lie down in an Alaia dress. “It’s like a totally important designer,” Cher pleads. In the movie, the reply comes: “And I will totally shoot you in the head.” On stage that becomes: “You do see that I have a gun? Boy, kids today…” It’s not all that different, but it’s definitely not as good.