THE OTHER CHER SHOW: CLUELESS, THE MUSICAL
By: Samuel L. Leiter
December 17, 2018: If you can’t afford—or get seats to—that Broadway show about a California clothes hound named Cher Sarkisian then maybe you’d be interested in the New Group’s Off-Broadway show about a California clothes hound named Cher Horowitz. I’m referring, of course, to Clueless, The Musical, a spirited, if overstated, new show faithfully based on Amy Heckerling’s popular (and eventually cult-status) Gen-X movie of that name from 1995, which pokes fun at the mores of wealthy, overindulged LA high schoolers of the 90s. It joins other recent teen musicals, like Heathers, Bring it On, Cruel Intentions, the still-running Dear Evan Hansen and Mean Girls, and the soon-to-reappear Be More Chill, in a pattern that needs to take a break. As if.
Heckerling did her own adaptation, which has been given a supercharged staging by Kristin Hanggi (Rock of Ages) matched by Kelly Devine’s revved up choreography to a score based on familiar, mostly upbeat, 90s songs. In a twist on the usual jukebox formulas, most of the songs have new lyrics added by Heckerling to reflect what’s happening, as when “No Scrubs” becomes “No Shrugs” during a clothes-shopping scene. Some lyrics click, others strain for both wit and rhyme. The program lists nearly 30 numbers, those from the movie’s soundtrack including “Kids in America,” “Shoop,” “Bye Bye Bye,” “Rollin’ with My Homies,” and “Supermodel.” Some are heard only briefly, others in full.
Cher, popular, narcissistic, and bright—but nonetheless clueless about the most important things—is the Beverly Hills high school student whose do-gooder machinations drive the plot. She was played in the movie, unforgettably, with stardom-propelling charm by Alicia Silverstone (already 42!), and is now in the hands of Dove Cameron (Disney’s Liv and Maddie, the Descendants films). Adorable and multitalented she may be but her well-honed perfection as a looker, singer, dancer, and actress lacks Silverstone’s spontaneous believability.
As in the original, influenced by Jane Austin’s 1814 novel Emma, Cher is the daughter of a rich widower, Mel (Chris Hoch, doing a great job of playing all the adult males), a ruthless litigator. Her best friend is another well-off, mall rat cum fashionista, Dionne (Zurin Villanueva), girlfriend of the baggy pants-wearing Murray (Gilbert L. Bailey, II). Cher is also the ex-stepsister of the sweet, caring, and idealistic college student, Josh (Dave Thomas Brown, terrifically appealing in the Paul Rudd role), who teases her, with predictable results.
Cher plays matchmaker for a couple of lonely teachers, Mr. Hall and Miss Geist (Megan Sikora, who also covers Ms. Stoeger, the athletics coach), and for a shlumpy new girl, Tai (Ephie Aardema, in the role played by the late Brittany Murphy). Cher and Dionne garb her in teenage hipness so she’ll drop the skateboarding stoner, Travis (Will Connolly) and attract the popular Elton (Brett Thiele); he, though, has eyes for Cher.
The show retains Cher’s grade problems; her fling with an artsy new boy, Christian (Justin Mortelitti), who turns out to be gay; her driving test debacle (Tai later calls her “the virgin who can’t drive”); her rivalry with the snotty Amber (Danielle Marie Gonzalez); and, among other things, her happy ending with Josh. And, naturally, there’s a lesson to be learned in Cher’s journey from self-involvement to concern for other people.
Also present in bulk is the original’s 1990s-style, Los Angeles high school patois, which Heckerling actually studied before writing the script, one result being the viral spread of the expression, “as if.” Props like old-fashioned cellphones and VHS tapes, as well as frequent references to 90s celebs, heighten the period atmosphere, and, of course, LA’s Valley Girls get their own big moment (and song).
Heckerling has said she’s always thought of Clueless as a musical but that Hollywood turned down the idea for the movie. For all its brightness, however, Clueless, The Musical doesn’t really justify her intentions. There’s simply too much nonstop, high-energy going on in the music and the acrobatic, breakdancing-inclined choreography. The broad acting introduced by a few of the somewhat older actors playing souped-up teenyboppers doesn’t help much either.
Comic subtlety, conveyed by the film’s more realistic (although playfully heightened) manner, is abandoned in favor of a relentlessly insistent drive for mile-a-minute entertainment. Heckerling’s episodic, filmscript structure makes it difficult to sustain interest in the incident-filled shenanigans for the full two and a quarter hours; my eyes began looking at my wrist well before the curtain.
On the design side, Beowulf Boritt provides a deceptively simple unit set (supplemented by Darrel Maloney’s projections) of a wide strip of mesh-like material sweeping from the floor to the top of the proscenium, where it narrows into a beautifully curving ribbon hanging along the stage right wall. It suggests a plaid-patterned wall (plaid and Cher are a thing) lined with filigrees with which Jason Lyons does lighting magic. Doors and windows have a habit of surprising us by opening on several levels in otherwise invisible portals.
Amy Grace’s look-at-me costumes offer the visual coup de grace, being even more extreme versions of what the wealthy kids attending Bronson Allcott High School consider everyday wear. Credibility is often lacking but always in the spirit of fashion fun.
Clueless, The Musical seems likely to have a substantial life in store in regional, school, and amateur productions. Anyone contemplating a New York commercial run when the New Group version closes will, hopefully, be far from clueless as to its chances when they decide.
Clueless, the Musical
Pershing Square Signature Theatre/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through January 12
Photography: Monique Carboni