By Iris Wiener
Did we need another musical adaptation of a beloved film? As if. No number of knee-high socks, candy-colored costumes and nods to the 90s can make the argument that Clueless, the Musical, now running at The Pershing Square Signature Center, is a warranted, well-executed play on the 1995 hit. Though the show is not lacking in fun moments, overall it is severely in need of the sass and heart that made the film such an iconic aspect of 90s culture.
Amy Heckerling’s film was a modern spin on Jane Austen’s young matchmaker extraordinaire, Emma. With CTM, Heckerling once again put pen to page, this time rewriting lyrics to the 90s hits that pervaded myriad Napster playlists, creating a show akin to a jukebox piece- – i.e. no original music, all original lyrics. Heckerling attempted to recreate the world of eternally optimistic Cher in this distorted coming-of-age tale, taking viewers back to a money-drenched, superficial Beverly Hills, where fashion, sex and drugs consume the lives of the teenage protagonists. As Cher tries to play matchmaker to her teacher, manages letter-writing campaigns, and boosts a new student’s popularity, she learns about the complexities of love, friendship and judgment.
Most painfully missing from CTM is the charisma and flair of Alicia Silverstone, whose Cher was as glorious with her naivete and innocent, saucer-sized eyes as she was in her snappy comebacks and one-liners. Disney Channel star Dove Cameron dons Cher’s chunky heels for the musical, and though she delivers powerful notes as a singer, the character’s charmingly flip, barefaced nature is blatantly missing. Cameron’s Cher is cute but one-dimensional. The close-knit friendship Cher shared with Stacey Dash’s Dionne in the film was as hilarious as it was sentimental, and none of its girlish closeness comes across between Cameron and Zurin Villanueva in the musical incarnation; even Dionne’s “dramatic relationship” with Murray (Gilbert A. Bailey II) is indistinct, despite how Dionne exerts her pride and self-empowerment. Zurin’s delivery of “Murray, I have asked you repeatedly not to call me woman!” is soft and forgettable, when it should be simultaneously poignant and funny. The most standout performance in Clueless, The Musical is Chris Hoch, who takes on multiple adult male roles to great aplomb; his DMV instructor is a scene-stealing hoot.
Whether this spoiled group of high schoolers is singing “I know love will save my grade” to the tune of Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” or romping to MC Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This” as they skirt their way through phys ed., the show is, at the very least, entertaining. When Heckerling’s play on hit song lyrics serves the plot (see New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” being an anthem for the teens as they work to help a cause, or them squeaking “What’s more spectacular than valley vernacular?” to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” as they head to a party in the dreadful valley…“Eeew!”), the device is clever, simultaneously telling the story and setting the tone. However, it is not until the second act that it begins to feel less like a distraction. The groans and eye rolls are plentiful (check out the nod to TLC’s “No Scrubs” as the teens shimmy through Barneys belting “No shrugs;” after all, who would want those?). However, audiences eventually get on board with the concept, in part due to Kristin Hanggi’s direction and Kelly Devine’s superb dance numbers (far too fantastic for a show that only delights as much as it falls flat). The cast showcases Devine’s exceptional talent as they, well, groove to Deee-lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” and Blink-182’s “Dammit (I Guess This is Growing Up)” at a party.
Appropriately, one aspect of the show that manages to exceed expectations in the highly-anticipated project is the costume design. Amy Clark’s creations are as inventive as they are colorful and quirky, mixing vibrant copies of the iconic ensembles in the film with innovative new concepts for group scenes, such as over-the-top, black and white geometric designs for students in gym class, and a holiday party scene reminiscent of Joe Iconis’ Christmas Extravaganza- the holiday bauble and sparkle virtually explode in all facets of the scene, and it is simply joyful to watch. The primary-colored, plaid dresses and delightfully baggy pants more than make up for there being far too few of Cher and Dionne’s infamous hats. CTM is also a visual treat thanks to Jason Lyons’ intelligent lighting, which vigorously complements the vibrant scenes, especially when his blacklights make the detailing in Clark’s costumes burst.
CTM is chock full of treasures such as pom pom pens, dial-up modems, Gucci and Armani and, of course, the language that imbued an impressionable generation. “Oh my god, I am totally buggin’,” “Whatever!” and “You try driving in platforms!” were only a few gems that made the cut. Pop culture references to Beavis and Butthead, Luke Perry and South Park abound, so the show gets points for being a trippy joint down memory lane. Hanggi infuses the show with ingenious comic morsels, most notably messages on the classroom whiteboards (look closely and you’ll find “The Academy Awards are NOT a school holiday” and “This Friday is not a Jewish holiday. I checked.”).
Teens will enjoy CTM for its playfulness, eye candy and happy ending. (Plus, everything about Cameron is just so, like, likable!) However, it is a muted, watered-down version of Clueless. The musical is far more lackluster than its colors would have people believe, never letting audiences forget for a second that it’s a subpar take on an adored film. According to Cher, “searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie,” but it might be even more of a waste trying to figure out who thought the concept for this musical was a great idea.
Photos: Monique Carboni
Clueless, The Musical. December 11th through January 12th at The Pershing Square Signature Center, The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street. Two hours, 30 minutes, one 15-minute intermission.