On paper, the blue chip title, solid production values and enthusiastic young cast should be enough to make Clueless the Musical a hit, yet the new off-Broadway musical is missing the ever elusive magic ingredient needed to really make it fly.
Enjoying a sold out season, The New Group’s production of Clueless has clearly benefitted from a creative team with significant Broadway experience. Of all the credits of director Kristin Hanggi and choreographer Kelly Devine, Rock of Ages is the show that comes closest for the humorous nostalgia fest that appeared to be the aim here.
A sleeper hit in 1995, the movie Clueless has remained a well-loved favourite comedy over the years. Based loosely on Jane Austen’s Emma, the movie had appealing characters, an aspirational Beverly Hills setting and a quirky vocabulary.
Turning 16, popular rich girls Cher and Dionne (named, by their parents, after ancient singers) negotiate fashion, grades, driving tests and boys. Cher has a good heart, and enjoys matchmaking and makeovers.
The movie’s success was attributed to the terrific script by Amy Heckerling. In bringing the movie to the stage, Heckerling has worked alone, adapting her screenplay for the musical’s book, and changing the lyrics of ‘90s pop music to provide the songs.
It seems clear that the input of an experienced stage writer was needed as part of the adaptation process. A glaring omission is the absence of an I wish song for Cher. The musical starts well, with a rousing full company number, but then just meanders for the remainder of the show. The characters are charming enough, but there is nothing at stake to drive the action and engage the audience. A good adaptation should be able to answer the question “why is it on the stage?” Clueless the Musical adds nothing to the movie, relying purely on rose coloured nostalgia, which wears thin after two and a half hours.
Part of the difficulty also lies with the chosen songs, some of which draw a laugh or two but most of which are simply blatant re-writes with no specific reason to be there other than their familiarity. A band of six musicians creates a great sound, and are even used visually in couple of the scenes.
Costume designer Amy Clark begins with Cher’s tartan mini skirt and continues with an impressive wardrobe of ‘90s styles. In creating the scenic design, Beowulf Boritt riffs on the tartan theme, providing a chequered backdrop with hidden and doors and windows that curls and trails off overhead.
In the continued absence of Dove Cameron, swing Katie Goffman is perfectly cast as Cher, having the blonde, wide-eyed look and being a natural, likeable triple threat.
Zurin Villaneuve is an electric performer who is a pleasure to watch as Dionne.
Dave Thomas Brown has a ready charisma as Cher’s stepbrother Josh, singing with a lovely light tenor and underplaying the charm to great effect.
Clueless could easily have been on a track to Broadway. There will surely need to be more work done before this happens; with the right input, however, the show could eventually be the next Legally Blonde.
Clueless the Musical was reviewed 7.30pm Wednesday 9 January 2019 at Griffin Theatre, The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York where it plays until 12 January 2019.
Photos: Monique Carboni