Unlike, say, a film such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Clueless has the rare good fortune of clearly representing its historical moment without coming off as a creaky relic. Writer/director Amy Heckerling set her 1995 film in a sort of alternate reality, where the fabulously rich teens of Beverly Hills (already its own parallel universe) reference Kenny G and Christian Slater while dropping hyper-intelligent aperçus disguised as Valley Girl slang. Light on its feet and funny as hell, Clueless was in the ’90s but not of the ’90s.
With a George Lucas–like steadfastness, however, Heckerling has spent the ensuing years proving she has little idea what made her original work such a cultural benchmark, first with a limp TV series and now with a musical adaptation so insipid it makes one long for the good old days of 1642, when the Puritans shut down all the theaters.
The wafer-thin, Emma-inspired plot is still there, for the most part: Cher Horowitz (Hairspray Live!’s Dove Cameron), along with best friend Dionne (Zurin Villanueva), meddles in the love lives of faculty (Chris Hoch and Megan Sikora) and students (Ephie Aardema, Brett Thiele, Will Connolly) alike, until eventually finding love for herself with stepbrother Josh (Dave Thomas Brown). The film’s charm had less to do with its story or filmmaking, though, than with the casting and Heckerling’s wicked one-liners (sample: “I want to do something for humanity.” “How about sterilization?”). Stripped of these, there is little to carry an entire evening.
Clueless’s creators, who include director Kristin Hanggi (Rock of Ages) and choreographer Kelly Devine (Come from Away), have taken on the near-impossible task of creating a show that is both screen-to-stage musical and jukebox musical, doubling their chances to please no one with two increasingly popular but much-maligned genres. Blame not the genres, though (which, after all, gave us musicals like My Fair Lady, The Wiz, The Band’s Visit, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Girl from the North Country), but the execution.
Heckerling has not only immured the show in a laundry list of ’90s Top 10 hits, she has rewritten most of the lyrics to be story-specific, meaning musical theater will forever now include a department-store-set parody of TLC’s “No Scrubs” called “No Shrugs”—just because. That number comes about 10 minutes into Act I, which means there are still two punishing hours left of bad puns and monosyllabic near-rhyming couplets to endure, made worse by an apathetic approach to chronology that somehow manages to include Michael Bolton’s 1989 mom rock staple “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?” Clueless the movie flew, in part, because it couldn’t be easily pinned down to a specific time. Clueless, the Musical strenuously insists that the ’90s trappings are all that make it worthwhile.
Every adaptation has to decide how much of its source material to include, and Heckerling’s film looms large in the musical, quite literally with designer Beowulf Boritt’s vertical plaid wall curling up the back of the stage and out over the proscenium to echo Cher’s iconic yellow ensemble. The wall opens up a couple times to bring the band into the action of the play, but other than that (and a couple of windows/doors that actors consistently struggle to open or close), the set flattens the action to the stage, and scenes move left and right in Hanggi’s staging with an enervating predictability.
Heckerling’s film is capital-g Great, if not particularly good. Yet the musical adaptation wants to be something more; it wants to be topical and, even worse, important, climaxing in an environmental protest that feels neither earned nor particularly genuine. Eccentric side characters are given character arcs, including needlessly showing lovable stoner Travis (Connolly) at an NA meeting and, worst of all, implying that gay character Christian’s (Justin Mortelliti) Rat Pack affectations make him the target of bullying.
More realistic? Perhaps. But as played in the film, Christian, for all his stereotypically “gay” behavior, was a fully formed, unashamedly out gay teen whose queerness was incidental to his identity. Such a thing is still rare in pop culture, but it was unheard-of in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” 1990s. The shift in Christian’s character is typical of the entire slapdash, artless approach to this musical adaptation. Plenty of jokes write themselves for a show called Clueless, but Cher herself says it best in Act I: “Have you ever seen so much torment in one night?”
The New Group’s production of Clueless, the Musical runs through Jan. 12 at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and Sunday, and 8 p.m. on Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit thenewgroup.org.