When jukebox musicals falter, and they often do, critics are quick to blame the book. Unlike traditional book musicals, where score and story are conceived hand-in-glove, jukebox musicals attempt to shoehorn a narrative between beloved, preexisting songs. The fit inevitably feels off.
“Clueless, The Musical,” based on the delightful — some might say “bitchin” — movie draws from the 1990s jukebox, but solved that approach’s inherent dilemma by grafting new lyrics onto iconic pop hits. That way songs and story are in sync. They’ve invented a new subgenre I’m anointing the “jukebook musical.”
It should be noted that other tuners based on cult movies, like “Mean Girls” (currently on Broadway), “Legally Blonde,” “Heathers,” and “Far From Heaven,” are book musicals, bringing their familiar stories to life with original songs and music that were tailor-made. “Head Over Heels” (about to close on Broadway) which borrows tunes from The Go-Go’s catalog, is a jukebox musical.
The jukebook conceit is perfect for the sly, whimsical tone of this reimagined “Clueless.” The movie, you may recall, was a goofy reworking of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” transported to 1995 in a Beverly Hills high school and starring the irrepressible Alicia Silverstone, a tough act to follow.
The teen protagonist is named Cher, whose ditzy demeanor belies a generous heart and a sharp mind. She employs her keen fashion sense and bargaining skills to rescue unfortunate, lovelorn souls who need a makeover and a push to get their social lives on track. The manically optimistic Cher is a trouper and doesn’t dwell on her mother’s heinous untimely death, due to a freak liposuction incident.
Amy Heckerling, who wrote the screenplay, was tapped for this iteration as well. Does she stray from the original? As if!
This updated, somewhat uneven stage version, courtesy of The New Group Off Broadway, stars newcomer Dove Cameron as Cher, and her portrayal is spot-on. She brings a winsome charm to the conniving teen who juggles taking care of her gruff attorney father (the outstanding Chris Hoch), playing matchmaker with two of her teachers, and turning the new girl, Tai (Ephie Aardema), from frumpy loser into popular hottie.
Sure, it’s tempting to search for messages about seizing the day, the rewards of perseverance and selflessness, and how outward appearances can be deceiving. They’re all in there somewhere. But at its best, “Clueless” is a joyous, unabashed musical love letter to the awesome 1990s.
To refresh our memories, the show, directed by Kristin Hanggi (“Rock of Ages”) opens with a montage of now-classic images of television shows, movie stars, and newsmakers from the era. All to a revamped rendition of the Ace of Base hit “Beautiful Life.”
“Even the president is a Baldwin,” Cher declares, referring to a photo of a handsome Bill Clinton wailing on a saxophone.
When it comes to 1990s touchstones, there’s no such thing as too much. References to “Seinfeld,” breakdancing, California Pizza Kitchen, iMacs, “Ren & Stimpy,” “Dawson’s Creek,” and more abound.
The hit-and-miss musical numbers, with fly, hip-hop inflected choreography by Kelly Devine, are astute parodies of some of the dopest tunes of the decade by artists such as Des’ree, MC Hammer, Deee-Lite, En Vogue, and Blink 182.
My favorite is the thumping *NSYNC number “Bye Bye Bye,” which captures the crucial moment when Christian (Justin Mortelliti), the suave new guy that Cher is dating, debates revealing that he’s gay, and the entire company weighs in. Sample lyrics:
“You don’t like it but you know it’s true
That Christian has a better sense of style than you!
Yeah that ain’t no lie
Baby, bye bye bye!”
Elevating the proceedings is the dazzling, efficient set design by Beowulf Boritt, an intentionally cartoonish backdrop with all kinds of surprising windows and doors. It also provides a perch for the live band, though much of the music is, by necessity, prerecorded. Darrel Maloney’s projection design gives the impression that Cher really is driving her jeep through Beverly Hills, with her bestie Dionne (Zurin Villanueva) or stepbrother Josh (Dave Thomas Brown, a worthy stand-in for Paul Rudd) in tow.
But be forewarned: if you’ve never seen the movie, don’t know the difference between a Baldwin and a Monet, or don’t have an affinity for 1990s pop, the charms of this endearing if unpolished “Clueless” may be lost on you.
CLUELESS, THE MUSICAL | The New Group | Pershing Square Signature Center | 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Jan. 12: Tue.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sun. at 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. | $40-$125 at TheNewGroup.org | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission