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‘Mean Girls’ is so fetch: Musical at First Interstate Center pulls together well-worn tropes, teen angst for dose of good cheer

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 24, 2021

If your reaction to the idea of seeing the touring Broadway production of “Mean Girls” is an “eww, no thank you,” rethink that.

The show, adapted for the stage by Tina Fey, who wrote the screenplay for the 2004 film on which it was based, is more than the sum of its parts. It traffics in well-worn tropes – high school is hard, and cliques are bad – but it overcomes these cliches by charming its audience, exuding joy and reminding us to treat others with respect.

All in all, it’s pretty fetch.

It tells the story of Cady, a smart teenage girl who has just moved to the Chicago suburbs after living in Africa. As she tries to adapt to a big public school for the first time in her life, she comes up against the Plastics, a clique of “mean girls” who rule the school led by the queen bee, Regina.

After getting a coveted invite to join the Plastics for lunch, Cady’s world is turned upside down. She meets a boy, learns about the true meaning of friendship and is reminded that being mean isn’t so fun.

“Mean Girls” is a show that can surprise folks. Jonalyn Saxer knows this and hears it often from people. She’s been with the show since it was being workshopped in advance of the Broadway opening.

Saxer was in the ensemble of the original Broadway cast and served as a standby performer. Now she plays Karen, the show’s blond ditz and member of the Plastics, on the national tour that restarted this month after a pandemic-induced layoff.

She loves playing Karen, ditziness and all.

“This is the type of character I really enjoy playing. I mean, no one walks around and is like, ‘Oh, I’m so dumb. What’s the dumbest thing I could do right now?’ ” she said. “They just have a different way of seeing things and processing information.”

The show has a way of cheering up people, even though in its delving into teenage angst, it does go to some dark places. One character is hit by a bus, after all.

“Something I personally enjoy about the show is that whatever mood I am in, when I walk into the theater that day, and if I’ve had a really bad day or things in my life aren’t going well, I know that by the time I get to the end of the show, I will be smiling, and I think it reaches the audience on that journey, too,” Saxer said.

“We stay positive because Cady is the narrator, and you follow her journey of learning not to be mean.”

Even though it’s not a miraculous ending where everyone is best buddies, they’ve learned to be “reasonable about treating each other with dignity and respect,” she said.

As one of the few people who has been around the show the longest – four years – she and one of the tour managers are seen as the unofficial “Mean Girls” historians. She has loved being able to see the show evolve since those early days.

“What makes our show so great is in the creative process, our creative team (Fey, composer Jeff Richmond, lyricist Nell Benjamin, director Casey Nicholaw) were so willing to change things when things weren’t working, which not all creative teams are willing to do. They wrote multiple new songs from the out-of-town (tryout) to Broadway.

“It’s interesting because I know not just what the song is, but why it’s this song and why this moment happens,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun. I have a lot of intimate knowledge of the show, but I also enjoy it more. It’s like learning the history of a place. I know the history of the show.”

If you’ve never seen the film version of “Mean Girls,” it’s not a deal-breaker. The musical follows the plot of the film – except, as Saxer notes, all the singing and dancing. It’s been updated to reflect the increased use of cellphones and the advent of social media. But it’s still a high school show and as such has a pretty near universal appeal. Most of us have been there – or will be there.

“As much as a teenager can see it and connect with it, their parents can see it and connect with it,” she said.

At some point soon, Saxer will take a quick break from the tour to return to New York for a very special night: the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” Saxer has a small role as a Jet Girl.

“It was really, really magical,” Saxer said of her brief time on the set. “Justin (Peck, choreographer) and Steven and Kristie (Macosko Krieger), Steven’s producing partner, were so considerate. We have a large cast, and (the scene) dance in the gym, which we’re all in, there were like 60 people, and they knew everybody’s name.

“I think because it was such a short period of time, especially for so many of us who have been on Broadway where you’re running a show for months and months and years and years, it’s like, ‘OK, we just have to do this dance for the next three hours to get the shot, then it’s done.’

“So everyone was putting their full soul into every moment, into every dance step, into every acting beat, and because everybody on the entire production knew how special it was, that was imbued in every moment of shooting and the whole process.”

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