Long before Amy Heckerling’s 2016 confession that she lovingly borrowed “as if” from the gay community, the 1995 film Clueless has been a staple in queer culture. Primarily because of its incredible quotability. Heckerling has now adapted her modern-day cult classic into a staged musical that revels in nostalgia, awesome fashions, keeps audiences laughing, and gives Cher Horowitz a bit of a timely freshening up.
With Heckerling writing the book and creating mostly new lyrics for the pop songs that make up the score, it is no surprise that a majority of the memorable lines from the film have found their way into this musical. A welcomed surprise is that Kristin Hanggi’s direction for the show allows the cast to move beyond simply being replicas of their celluloid counterparts—especially in the case of Dove Cameron’s Cher. Using what Heckerling and Hanggi have offered her, Cameron creates a Cher that is a bit smarter (albeit still ditzy) and more agentic. Likewise, Cameron’s reimagining of the climatic monologue that drops the title has a different and altogether more satisfying emotional impact.
The changes ushered in by Heckerling’s book and Hanggi’s direction do not attempt to make this musical a serious piece of legitimate theatre. Perhaps the best aspect of the production is the fact that it’s self-aware enough to toe the line of parody, recognizing that the only way to make Clueless, The Musical work and be entertaining is to be in on its own joke. With a tongue-in-cheek attitude, the show frees itself to be as over-the-top as it wants to be. This can be seen everywhere from Tessa Grady’s Amber repeating her mantra of speaking what she thinks, to Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design, which cleverly turns a single ribbon of Cher’s iconic first-day-of-school yellow plaid dress into a Beverly Hills mansion, her school, and more.
The musical also playfully thumbs their nose at audiences in the way each song is introduced. Playing into the nostalgia of it all, the better remembered hits of the era are sometimes given what feels like 8 full bars of musical introduction. This allows the audience to get their chuckles out before hearing how Heckerling has worked the tune – complete with freshly amended lyrics – into the show. Prime examples include “Beautiful Life” by Ace of Base as the effervescing opener, a car trip to the Valley set to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” a frat party featuring “Dammit” by Blink 182, N’SYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” as a show-stopping discussion of Christian’s sexuality, and the oft repeated teases of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” before it appears as the finale. Other songs, like TLC’s “No Scrubs,” pop in and out as the punchline to a joke.
Choreography by Kelly Devine makes the most of the small stage the show is presented on, letting bigger numbers like “Bye Bye Bye” dazzle with the signature dance moves associated with the song. As the music in the show shifts from genre to genre, so does the dancing. This is a challenge that Devine and the cast rise to, presenting a plethora of styles during the evening. This is also mirrored in Amy Clark’s costume design, which does lip service to the film by reimagining some of the most iconic looks while also showcasing the wide array of fashions from the decade.
Clueless, The Musical is a fun trip down memory lane. Smartly, it’s not trying to be anything more than that. It continues its world premiere run presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City, through January 12, 2019.