How does a musical stage adaptation of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film comedy of oblivious privileged teens, “Clueless,” play in the era of female empowerment and millennial engagement? True, the principal skills of lead teen Cher Horowitz are the superficial ones of mall shopping and makeovers. But her sweet spirit and independence, plus some added P.C. relevance, make this further take on Jane Austen’s upscale do-gooder “Emma” a delight once again.
This playful, upbeat show should be an easy sell both Off Broadway, where it premiered in a production from The New Group, and in the provinces, thanks to the film’s legion of fans. But its lightweight narrative keeps it at the enjoyable-fluff level, even if its two-hour-plus length wears out its welcome just a tad, and the once-freshness of its comedy of ‘90s modes and manners is lessened by what have since become stereotypes.
Whatever. The look, tone and ’tude of the show, directed with the clip of the flick by Kristin Hanggi (“Rock of Ages”), is spot-on. Its fantasy life of ultra-rich teens — where all school cliques live in peace and harmony — is here further enlivened with songs of the era, cleverly recrafted lyrically for the show by Heckerling, who also wrote the musical’s book. Props to the savvy selection of tunes — including songs from the Spin Doctors, Dee-Lite, En Vogue and N’ Sync — and to the music’s integration into the characters’ lives and stories by music director Matthew Smedal and music supervisor-arranger-orchestrator Ethan Popp.
The let’s-dance choreography of Kelly Devine (“Come From Away”) also keeps its teen-energy moves a constant pleasure. Beowulf Boritt’s design essentials are rad and Amy Clark’s costumes recall the too-cool-to-care designs of the period and its stylish plaids and pleats. The house band rocks, too.
Heckerling doesn’t so much re-imagine as recreate her original screenplay, about an ever-optimistic teen whose best-intention efforts to change the lives of others instead transform her own. The cast strikes the same happy balance of satire and sincerity as the film’s.
But ultimately the success of both the movie and this adaptation hinges on the appeal of their Chers. Like the movie’s breakout performance by Alicia Silverstone, the Cher of Dove Cameron (Disney’s “Liv and Maddie”) also wins you over with her true belief in the power of positive shopping and her magical thinking that it can do good. (Think Glinda from “Wicked,” transported to Beverly Hills High.) Cameron plays Cher’s sunny spirit for real, but with just enough flickers of doubt in the second act to keep her character kind of interesting.
The supporting cast is equally impressive, especially Dave Thomas Brown as Josh — played in the film by Paul Rudd — and echoing that irresistible sweet-smart awkwardness that eventually makes Cher see the value of life beyond a Barney’s sale. Plus, he sings like a dream.
Will Connolly is suitably lovable as stoner Travis — and has a sweet hummable musical turn, too with Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.” Justin Mortelliti is hipster-cool as Christian; Ephie Aardema makes a credible transformation as new girl Tai; and Zurin Villaneuva as Cher’s pal Dionne is a bestie anyone would want (though not behind the wheel). It’s also fun to watch Gilbert L. Bailey II trying for street-cred as Di’s boyfriend Murray. Meanwhile, Chris Hoch plays all the adult males roles — dad, teacher and a frantic driving instructor — with skillful variations of hilarity.
There are a few new touches in the second act that try to give Cher and the show a bit more substance, but not enough to weigh down its feathery spirit. It’s still about a fab girl who just wants to make the world as perfect as her beautiful life.