Whoops of anticipation (and maybe a little apprehension?) resounded throughout the Citizens Bank Opera House when Regina George, the “apex predator’’ in the jungle that is her Illinois high school, made her imperious entrance in the musical adaptation of Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls.’’
As Regina (Mariah Rose Faith) looked down, fittingly enough, from on high at her classmates, the vibe was akin to that moment in “101 Dalmatians’’ when Cruella de Vil first slinks onto the scene, and you’re suddenly trembling for puppies everywhere.
It’s not pelts Regina is after, of course, but souls. For her, each day is a search-and-destroy mission: Search for the insecurities of her classmates and destroy their self-esteem. And then Regina has them where she wants them: under her heel. The challenge for new student Cady Heron (Danielle Wade) is to find her way through the complex social minefield patrolled by Regina and her acolytes without losing herself — a challenge at which, initially, Cady fails.
“Mean Girls’’ mostly succeeds. It does so, in part, because it makes us care about whether Cady finds her way back. Perhaps most notably, the musical manages to not contort itself too strenuously while having it both ways: blending a feminist sensibility and a female-solidarity message with a rowdy dance-party atmosphere, complete with skimpy costumes.
Anyone who still carries scars from high school — surely no more than 99 percent of the population — will recognize the types, tropes, and high stakes in “Mean Girls.’’ The stakes for the musical itself were pretty high when it premiered on Broadway two years ago, since the film version has been a cultural touchstone since its release in 2004, especially for girls and young women. Fans of the movie know what the Burn Book is; they know who The Plastics are; they know canonical chunks of dialogue (“Gretchen, stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen!,’’ “On Wednesdays, we wear pink’’) by heart.
I suspect they won’t be disappointed in the musical, which is directed and choreographed with gusto by Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon’’) and features a book by Fey, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, and music by Jeff Richmond. Though it’s not consistently top-drawer and contains a few choppy stretches — I’d put it a notch below “Tootsie,’’ another beloved-film-recently-turned-Broadway-musical — “Mean Girls’’ is propelled by a rambunctiously entertaining spirit that does not obscure its dual focus on (to borrow lines from the show) “the need to belong’’ and the desire to “change the way the world works.’’
The major thing the musical got right was leaving the script in Fey’s hands. The qualities we associate with that comic mastermind, especially in her work on “30 Rock’’ and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’’ — smarts, wit, bite, out-of-left-field insights — are present in Fey’s script for “Mean Girls.’’
As she did in her work on the musical adaptation of “Legally Blonde,’’ lyricist Benjamin demonstrates a gift for finding humor and poignancy in the behavior of status-conscious young women. Richmond’s music sometimes leaves you wanting more originality or distinctiveness, though the composer does deliver the goods in rousing numbers like “Revenge Party.’’ A few other song titles suggest some of the stops on the show’s emotional journey: “What’s Wrong with Me?,’’ “Stupid with Love,’’ “I’d Rather Be Me,’’ “Where Do You Belong?’’
The characters wrestling with those questions, dilemmas, and decisions are embodied by a skilled cast. Wade’s Cady never forfeits our sympathy, even as the initially hesitant outsider misplaces her moral compass during her quest for social status. As Regina, Faith radiates glamorous malice; this Queen Bee’s stare can sear and her words can sting. As Regina’s subservient sidekicks, Gretchen and Karen, Megan Masako Haley and Jonalyn Saxer are funny yet touching, conveying in solo moments how much each of the girls is held hostage by a lack of self-confidence. Adante Carter brings gentle warmth and likability to his portrayal of Aaron, the ex-boyfriend of Regina’s on whom Cady develops a crush. As the defiant social outcasts Damian and Janis, Cady’s true friends and guides through the underworld of North Shore High, Eric Huffman and Mary Kate Morrissey add a welcome sardonic edge to the show.
In one witty touch borrowed from the movie, the students in “Mean Girls’’ literally turn feral in a couple of snapshot-quick scenes when they spot a weakness, like lions or hyenas attacking vulnerable prey. Enduring themes — the casual cruelty of teenagers who are still trying on wobbly identities as they jockey for social position in an uncertain environment; the sustaining importance of friendship and loyalty in helping their victims survive that environment — are augmented with allusions to the reputation-shattering impact of social media and the malignant effects of Russian bots and trolls.
Of course, as “Mean Girls’’ reminds us, some of the worst trolling can happen in a high school cafeteria or hallway.
Book by Tina Fey. Music by Jeff Richmond. Lyrics by Nell Benjamin. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston, through Feb. 9. Tickets start at $44.50, 800-982-2787, www.BroadwayInBoston.com