Amy Heckerling has parlayed her 1995 film “Clueless” into a musical, which is being presented off-Broadway by The New Group. The story is based loosely, very loosely, on Jane Austen’s “Emma.” As fans of the film know, the setting is a 1990’s high school set in Beverly Hills and, as noted in the program, “a little bit in the Valley.” A key question for an audience is how much of ditsy high school airheads can you take?
The show’s big plus is the performance by Dove Cameron in the lead as Cher Horowitz. This year Cameron won a Daytime Emmy for playing both title characters in Disney’s “Liv and Maddie.” That and her other assorted credits have won her a young following, and she delivers with gusto in her “Clueless” role, a demanding one that goes a long way toward brightening the show.
Done up in saucy outfits designed by Amy Clark, Cher is a designer-shopaholic befitting her dad’s financial status and that of the economically upscale student body. Cameron is peppy and perky in the role, whether mindless about studies but clever at wrangling all-too-willing teachers into increasing her lousy grades, or ultimately, if not exactly believably, converting to a fighter for the environment. Cameron sings with enthusiasm (lyrics by Heckerling to period songs) and is adept at the timing required as director Kristin Hanggi integrates the action and musical numbers with precision.
Clark’s costumes go a long way toward adding color, especially for the gal students, whether the key players or the energetic chorus. Kelly Devine’s choreography for both male and female male students is zippy and high-school-hell-raising appropriate for the era. Hecklering nails the kind of conversations one might have heard from students in the 90’s (and maybe even today), as when Cher is castigated as only “a virgin who can’t drive.” But Cher sure does thrive on cheerful optimism.
The various plot threads are too thin to care much about, including the assorted relationships between Cher and friends and also with Josh (Dave Thomas Brown), the son of her father’s ex. We see the friendship between them budding into potential romance. Zurin Villanueva is effective as Dionne, Cher’s close pal, as is Ephie Aardema as Tai, the new girl Cher sees as ripe for a makeover.
The musical is consistently good to look at, thanks in no small part to the set that Beowulf Boritt has designed—a back panel with windows and doors popping open and shut, and what looks like a giant ribbon springing from the background and hovering over the stage.
The rest of the cast members, including Chris Hoch in multiple roles, fit neatly into the overall busy entourage. But despite all the show biz know-how and the especially entertaining Cameron, an avalanche of teenage vacuity may be more than some can take. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Reviewed December 24, 2018