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Theatre in Review: Clueless, the Musical (The New Group/Pershing Square Signature Center)

Zurin Villanueva, Megan Sikora, Dove Cameron. Photo: Monique Carboni.

I'll say this for Amy Heckerling: She has gone where no one in the jukebox-musical world has gone before. Most such shows -- not the star bios, like Beautiful or The Cher Show, but those with fictional plots, like Mamma Mia! and Escape to Margaritaville -- make small tweaks to the lyrics of their pop-standard scores, but Heckerling goes all in, subjecting Clueless' playlist of 1990s hits to a thorough lyrical overhaul. Audiences may at first be slightly disoriented to hear Ace of Base's "Beautiful Life" retooled to recount a typical day in the life of Cher, the musical's meddling heroine, and they may be further confused to find The Spin Doctors' "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" reframed to show how skillfully Cher negotiates with her teachers, using various stratagems to get her mediocre marks upgraded. Those expecting the songs of their youth in their unexpurgated versions may be disappointed, but Heckerling's work goes a long way toward tabling the main complaint about these shows, that the songs often seem weirdly disconnected from the plots and characters they were never written to address.

And for a first-timer, Heckerling's lyrics aren't bad. There are some awkward rhymes, but she goes about her business with a sly sense of humor. "How am I supposed to get this open," sings a lovelorn teacher, struggling with a box of Godiva chocolates to the music of Michael Bolton's gooey "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?" Josh, Cher's serious-minded stepbrother and reluctant love interest, notes that she's "like MichCher Pfeiffer, Courtney Cox, and all the Spice Girls," while she returns the favor, singing "He's like Franz Kafka, Howard Zinn, or Albert Schweitzer." Anyone who can work the author of A People's History of the United States into a show about the Beverly Hills teen set must be doing something right.

And while noting the show's strengths, let's talk about Dove Cameron. Best known for her work on the Disney Channel sitcom Liv and Maddie, she is just about perfect as Cher, the cheerfully entitled queen bee who thinks it is her God-given duty to bring happiness to everyone around her -- just like Emma, the eponymous heroine of the Jane Austen novel that is the source material for the 1995 film Clueless. Cher may have her litigator father wrapped around her finger; she may haunt the Galleria daily, adding to her extensive supply of designer creations; and at school she may be the ruler of the social roost, but her intentions are totally benign: She only wants everyone to be happy. Unlike so many current musicals, which portray high school as nature red in tooth and claw, Clueless is remarkably good-natured; you could call it Unmean Girls.

Cameron delightfully captures the kooky blend of worldliness and innocence that is Cher's stock in trade. Watching her two best friends engage in yet another public spat, she smooths things over for us, explaining, "At least once a day, Dionne and Murray entertain the students with a dramatic improv exploring the male/female dynamic. It's made them immensely popular." A few minutes later, charged with defending immigration in debate class, she launches into an amusingly blinkered defense of Haitians (pronounced "Hay-tee-ans") that is really a tribute to her party-throwing skills. Discovering that a close friend is, unawares, treading on Cher's man territory, Cher turns to us and confides, in her best sugary manner, "I know this sounds heinous, but suddenly I wish I never met her." Even when Cher is at her most clueless, there's wicked gleam in Cameron's eye, as well as an ever-so-slightly knowing smile that lets us know she is in on the fun.

The people behind Clueless should be grateful to Cameron for providing it with a much-needed transfusion of fizz, for it never reaches a comic detonation point and it suffers from a lack of urgency that will probably leave it struggling to stand out in a market already overcrowded with musicals aimed at the acne-and-braces crowd. Heckerling's book, which closely follows her 1995 screenplay, has its moments, whether it is Cher, eyeing an image of Bill Clinton, noting that "even the President is a Baldwin," or everyone standing around, staring at an old-fashioned Mac computer, waiting for the modem to connect. But in the transfer from screen to stage, Clueless comes across as a series of disconnected episodes rather than a cohesive satirical account of Cher's bumpy road to maturity. The narrative line wanders, the laughs are only occasional and fall well short of boffo, and the songs, with their familiar melodies and new lyrics, still fail at the all-important task of making us fall in love with the characters. On the rare occasion when choreographer Kelly Devine is allowed to build a number into a full onstage riot, Clueless starts to acquire some much-needed energy, but the show suffers from a stop-and-start quality that prevents the party atmosphere from kicking in.

The cast, under the direction of Kristin Hanggi, of Rock of Ages fame, is never less than genial, and, in the case of Dave Thomas Brown, who plays Cher's serious-minded law-student stepbrother, is full-on charming. There are likable turns by Zurin Villanueva as Dionne, Cher's BFF and henchwoman; Ephie Aardema as Tai, the drab transfer student Cher and Dionne take on as their latest project; Will Connolly as the stoner who captures Tai's heart; Justin Mortelliti as one of Cher's crushes, who turns out not to be boyfriend material but an impeccable fashion adviser; and Tessa Grady as Amber, she of a dozen plastic surgery procedures and a hundred cutting remarks. The older generation is well represented by Chris Hoch and Megan Sikora as lonely teachers who figure in another Cher social experiment. Hoch also doubles as Cher's terror of a father.

The production design is exactly right, including Beowulf Boritt's set, in which the upstage backdrop seems to unroll like a bolt of fabric, turning into curlicues that lead out past the proscenium into the house. Darrel Maloney's projections turn the drop into a football field, a montage of war scenes, a display of purple neon lights, an episode of Buns of Steel, and many other amusements. Jason Lyons' lighting is a work of pop art, splashing saturated color all over the place without ever going too far. Amy Clark's costumes are a comedy in themselves, especially Cher and Dionne's personal couture styles. Gareth Owen's sound design finds a sweet spot early on, delivering clarity without overwhelming one in the smallish auditorium.

More to the point, Clueless enters a New York theatre scene packed to the gills with musical treatments of teen angst, and its fond presentation of Clinton-era style excesses is not distinctive enough. It lacks Mean Girls' acid observations and sharp-eyed sense of the social food chain, the heartbreak of Dear Evan Hansen, and the political satire and inside-Broadway wisecracks of The Prom. And I sincerely doubt that it has the fanatic fan base of Be More Chill, currently on hiatus before its Broadway transfer. It may do well with '90s nostalgists and fans of the film, but next to the shows listed above, it is something of a wallflower. Cher isn't so much clueless as she is redundant. -- David Barbour

(12 December 2018)

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