Producers: Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey   Directors: Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.  Screenplay: Tiny Fey   Cast: Angourie Rice, Reneé Rapp, Auli’i Cravalho, Jaquel Spivey, Avantika, Bebe Wood, Christopher Briney, Jenna Fischer, Busy Philipps, Ashley Park, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Jon Hamm, Connor Ratliff and Mahi Alam   Distributor: Paramount

Grade: C

Turning movies into Broadway musicals is a fairly commonplace way to avoid having to come up with new ideas—it’s happened with “Some Like It Hot” twice—but then returning them to the screen in the musicalized form is rarer.  “The Color Purple” was a recent example, and it’s quickly followed by this song-heavy clone of Tina Fey’s cherished 2004 teen comedy, which she rewrote for the stage in 2018, supplemented with music by her husband Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin.  (A nod is also due Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book “Queen Bees and Wannabees,” which served as Fey’s original inspiration—just as Alice Walker’s novel did for Steven Spielberg’s 1985 “Purple.”)

The skeleton of the plot has remained pretty much unchanged through all the transmogrifications, though the advent of the social media age becomes a major narrative element here.  Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) is a recent transfer to North Shore High, having been homeschooled while living in Kenya with her scientist mother (Jenna Fischer).  Her excitement turns to depression when the only classmates willing to give her the time of day at first are outcasts Janis (Auliʻi Cravalho) and her buddy, ostentatiously gay Damian (Jaquel Spivey).  They instruct her about the various campus cliques, advising her to be especially wary of Queen Bee Regina George (Reneé Rapp) and her hangers-on, nervously nattering doormat Gretchen (Bebe Wood) and dim-bulb Karen (Avantika), who rule the place.  But for whatever reason Regina invites Cady to join her entourage and be educated in its ways.

But a problem arises when Cady is attracted to nice guy Aaron (Christopher Briney) in her advanced math class, only to discover that he’s Regina’s ex-boyfriend.  Regina pretends to be supportive of her, but at a Halloween party effortlessly steals Aaron back, letting Cady know it’s a gesture of superiority. 

So Janis, who harbors resentment toward Regina for reasons that are eventually revealed, suggests not only that Cady sabotage Regina’s renewed relationship with Aaron by revealing that she’s cheating on him, but that she undermine Regina’s dominant status on campus.  As the plan, which involves inducing Regina to consume boxes of candy bars to increase her weight, works, Regina becomes a desperate laughingstock while Cady becomes the new Queen Bee, dissing Janis and Damian in the process.  Regina eventually reciprocates by suggesting that Cady’s behind the “Burn Book,” a scrapbook she’s been assembling for years that brutally insults other students and even faculty.  Its revelation occasions a student uproar in which Cady and Regina both suffer, though in different ways.  In the end, of course, Cady learns her lesson and becomes the poster child for treating people with kindness rather than competition—and wins Aaron back, too.

Though Fey follows the plot of the 2004 original pretty slavishly, she takes the opportunity to update matters, excising bits that would now be considered insensitive (like the coach hitting on students) and spotlighting social media posts as the medium through which rumors and insults spread like wildfire.  She also adds some tart new jibes to the mix, though fewer than one might expect. 

The major new elements, though, are the musical numbers, and unfortunately they’re mostly mediocre.  There are occasional exceptions—“I’d Rather Be Me,” Janis’s anthem to personal authenticity delivered toward the close, is a well-devised second-act showstopper of the old Broadway school—but most of the others are marked by bland music and nondescript (and sometimes even unpleasant) lyrics, and a musical with music that’s instantly forgettable becomes rather a chore to sit through.  Nor does it help that Kyle Hanagami’s choreography of the dance numbers is either weird (see “Apex Predator”) or simply busy and boring, even with fairly supple cinematography by Bill Kirstein and editing by Andrew Marcus.  The production design by Kelly McGehee is uninspired too, though Tom Broecker’s costumes are fine, and sometimes garishly eye-catching when the script calls for it.

In their feature debut, directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. (of the mini-series “Quarter Life Poetry”) bring no special flair to the proceedings, and under their flaccid helming some sequences (like the talent show “Rockin’ Around the Pole” number) fall comedically flat.  Nor does the cast fare particularly well in their hands.  Rice makes a pleasant heroine, but among the younger performers it’s Rapp who comes off best, even if she’s encouraged to overplay.  In that respect, though, she pales beside Spivey, a little of whose gay guy shtick goes a long way and who suffers from an excess of close-ups.  Overall, it has to be said that the youngsters fail to bring the sparkle to the material that the 2004 line-up headed by Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams did. 

But the adults are no better.  As Regina’s mother Busy Philipps outdoes even Spivey in playing to the second balcony, and though Fischer brings some of her low-key “Office” charm to Cady’s mom, those playing teachers—Ashley Park, Connor Ratliff, and especially Jon Hamm in a thankless cameo as Coach Carr—are given next to nothing to do.  Fey and Tim Meadows reprise their 2004 roles as math teacher Ms. Norbury and Principal Duvall, with Meadows unexpectedly proving the more amusing of the two.

In sum, those who have been looking forward to a class reunion at North Shore High are likely to find this new “Mean Girls” a letdown.  It doesn’t match the comic fizz of the original, and the added musical numbers are basically blah.