San Francisco commercial theater is undergoing a serious bout of teen angst. The messy message of “Dear Evan Hansen” is at the Orpheum Theatre, while the Golden Gate Theatre roils with girl power when the upstage door splits open in a blast of pink haze to reveal a goddess astride her chariot. Well, astride her cafeteria table. “My name is Regina George,” she murmurs to the sinuous beat in “Meet the Plastics” before adding “and I am a massive deal.”
It’s probably the best and most musically theatrical moment in the Broadway stage adaptation of “Mean Girls” now touring the country.
Based on the 2004 comedy written by Tina Fey and Rosalind Wiseman, the plot centers on socially awkward Cady (“It’s kay-dee!”) Heron, daughter of research anthropologists. Newly arrived in suburban Illinois from a life of home-schooling on the plains in Kenya, she attempts to find her place in the urban jungle of teen society. The film featured Fey and a host of “Saturday Night Live” alums like Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer and Tim Meadows. It also boosted the nascent careers of Lindsay Lohan, Lizzy Kaplan, Lacey Chabert, and Amanda Seyfried.
However, calling it “based on” the film is really not accurate, because everything in the film has made it to the stage, and then some. The 1.5-hour-and-change screener has been expanded to a 2.5-hour musical (including an extensive concessions-boosting intermission). Beyond the singing and dancing, most of the growth has been in further development of Regina’s handmaids, the desperately needy gossip-girl Gretchen Wieners (in a show where a running joke is about another character having an intimate encounter with an Oscar Mayer product) and the dim-but-intuitive, party girl Karen Smith. Everything else is a very by-the-numbers transfer with Fey now receiving the sole writing credit.
Wait! There is also a framing device where Cady’s first friend candidates — “angry” art student Janis Sarkisian and the “almost too gay to function” George Michael-obsessed Damian Hubbard — set the cautionary tale tone for what’s to come in flashback.
With music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, “Mean Girls” is not nearly as theatrically fetch as its nearest film-to-musical cousins, the bubbly “Legally Blonde” (where Benjamin had a better composing partner in Laurence O’Keefe), the ebullient “Hairspray,” or the darkly cutting “Heathers” (also O’Keefe), where the girls are far meaner. “Apex Predator” and the handmaiden songs “Sexy” for Karen and “What’s Wrong with Me” for Gretchen are effective character defining songs. There’s also “Stop,” an attempt at an old-school Broadway production number. The rest are an undistinguishable blur. This is particularly egregious in the singing which is constantly defying sonic gravity, going for notes that become trying and tiring to hear over an extended period.
You are more likely to depart humming the set, which is actually a truly amazing deployment of projections-instead-of-scenery effort by Scott Pask with video by Finn Ross and Adam Young.
The earnest cast members, many making their touring debuts, work very hard. The veddy theatrically named English Bernhardt (Cady) transitions effectively from nice new girl to shallow icon and back. The troika of Nadina Hassan (Regina), Morgan Ashley Bryant (Karen), and Mary Beth Donahoe (understudy for Gretchen) play the power dynamics well. Lindsay Heather Pearce (Janis) would do better to get angry rather than starting there, and both she and Eric Huffman (Damian) feel less like underdogs and more master manipulators than the title characters. Like a Peanuts cartoon panel, the adults here are negligible, but Heather Ayers does a nice bit of Jane Curtin channeling as teacher Ms. Nobury, originally played by Fey in the film.
Ultimately, the “Mean Girls” of both stage and screen are too nice to really embrace the title, but the laughs survive, which probably makes this production a nice high school reunion for its fans.
“Mean Girls” continues through Feb. 26 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40 (rush) to $175; visit broadwaysf.com.