All the way through The New Group's production of Clueless, The Musical, a nagging thought asserts itself to those who have sat through too many jukebox musicals, or musicals that feature snatches of familiar songs; all these odd, manipulative nostalgia exercises trading off well-known pieces of music.
Oh please, not this again.
It’s not that the performers of Amy Heckerling’s musical are not committed to what they are doing; they're excellent. It’s not that Beowulf Boritt’s design isn’t delightful (it really is; the stage is encased with a flowing yellow check ribbon). Dove Cameron’s Cher is as full of precise charm as Alicia Silverstone in the 1995 movie; Amy Clark’s costumes are on point with the sexed-up preppiness the film originated.
The unapologetically shallow vibe of shopping and surfaces is present and correct. Kelly Devine’s choreography is energetic. Kristin Hanggi’s direction is as brisk as Cher herself.
Both the film and this musical were written by Heckerling (who also directed the movie), but whereas the film’s modern reworking of Jane Austen’s Emma felt sly as well as sweet, with a serrated spike in its Mary Janes, this musical just feels rushed and fragmented. The stage show moves through all the same story points as the film, but it is far from a piece of compelling theater.
All the songs are original, in that they are reworded versions of classic, mostly '90s hits, even if some post-date 1995, and some even way pre-date 1995 into the 1980s. Your brain is alerted to the tune of an old familiar, just not with the words you remember.
Some of these are executed with the kind of daffy silliness that the musical occasionally excels in. ‘How am I Supposed To Live Without You’ is sung by Chris Hoch’s head teacher Mr. Hall as he prepares to romance Miss Geist (Megan Sikora), whom Cher and best friend Dionne (Zurin Villanueva) make over. There are moments where Heckerling’s subversions and delicious jab-jokes poke through the parade of familiar songs and by-numbers script.
But nothing changes in the two-plus hours, and nobody really changes either. Cher begins as the wide-eyed matchmaker, and ends as exactly the same. Where is her real test? Where is her challenge? Why is she doing this?
The music doesn’t pivot to particular moments, or color them in with emphasis, it just cheerfully barrels along, as with the repetitive arguing and pashing of Dionne and her boyfriend Murray (Gilbert L. Bailey II).
Here comes Tai (Ephie Aardema), the new girl who apparently needs yet another makeover (she doesn't), and who also needs, Cher thinks, to be steered away from stoner Travis (Will Connolly, excellent). And here is Christian (Justin Mortelliti), handsome, charming and gay, and whose being outed is furnished with an energetic New Kids on the Block-scored dance sequence.
Cher’s lesson, like Emma’s, is that she cannot control everything and everyone; she can’t make the world as she would like it, and that, despite all her planning for love, sometimes it’s right there in front of you—as it is with Josh (Dave Thomas Brown), her socially-minded ex-stepbrother. (No-one ever raises so much as a squeak at the familial closeness of that relationship.)
Both Cher and Josh eye each other quizzically, Cher because Josh seems so right-on and nerdy, and Josh towards Cher because she seems so vapid and materialistic. Brown is a truly charming and versatile performer, who figures out how to make the most of the scant material the script offers between the parade of songs and dancing.
There is one really jangling moment, in which Cher calls her apparently much-loved housekeeper Lucy (Danielle Marie Gonzalez) Mexican, when she is in fact Salvadoran. This is glossed over with shrugs and silent apologies in the musical.
Clueless, The Musical breezed through this, and other matters that might merit some deeper consideration. There’s another song to get to, another nostalgia nerve to tweak. Aspiring to lightness is one thing, but it needn't be so empty-headed. You're following one song to the next, rather than the progression of characters or plot.
Even Clueless’ clearly keenly felt environmental politics are lightly executed on stage. A letter-writing campaign is an excuse to get social. Placards are waved, and the company sings a rousing, smiley “We’re the kids in America, woo-oh.” Clueless, The Musical is a dose of loud nostalgia also lost in its own shallows.
Clueless, The Musical is at the Pershing Square Signature Center, NYC, until January 12.