I did not understand the appeal of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, the movie, until I saw it as a musical. In the 1997 cult flick starring Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow, not one single character speaks or in any other way acts like a human being. The two leads perform more of an aesthetic (Cher from Clueless but drag queens? Two sentient bags of glitter?), but even at their funniest could never shoulder the 90 minutes of clumsy dialogue and poorly paced scenes.
But it's all so crystal clear now: The characters seem out of place in the film because each are actually stage creations confined cruelly to the screen. Scenes fall flat and transition awkwardly because, duh, they're meant to be set pieces. The labored dialogue is labored since there is no singing. I mean, the highlight of the film is a closing dance number. Of course! Romy and Michele makes so much more sense as a musical.
I wonder if writer Robin Schiff felt this way when she began adapting her original screenplay—based around two endearingly ditzy characters from her 1988 play Ladies Room—twenty years after the film's debut. It bears repeating: every single character on the 5th Avenue Theatre stage is more actualized, sympathetic, engaging, and lovable than their film counterparts. Emotional beats land better in song than on screen (with a few exceptions, more on that later), and the simplicity of the plot fits well into two acts: A pair of Los Angeles underachievers in feather trim and neon heels return to their 10-year high school reunion in hopes of impressing their class members by lying about inventing Post-it notes.
Every change made to the plot, especially a key romance at the end, is an improvement. And there are moments, like a particular nightmare sequence, that work so much better on stage it's as if the film tried to adapt the play version.
Directed by Tony nominee Kristin Hangg with music and lyrics by Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay, the world premiere production—as with the film—lives or dies by its two leads. Luckily, Cortney Wolfson (Romy White) and Stephanie Renee Wall (Michele Weinberger) are on one, both clearly having a blast in two star-making performances. Wolfson, tasked with recreating in both speech and song Mira Sorvino's iconic Romy accent (think valley girl with notes of Minnesota), fills the entire theatre from floor to ceiling every time she's in the spotlight. And Wall basically takes over the second act, delivering one of the more memorable musical numbers, "I Invented Post-its."
Only twice is a scene stolen from the titular characters. First by Jordan Kai Burnett's Heather Mooney, taken with brute force in a saucy and cigarette smoke–laden manifesto on love (it's bullshit), and then by Tess Soltau as the super evil cheerleader turned super evil mommy Christie Masters, flanked by her squad of pregnant ladies. Everything else is Romy and Michele, their friendship (romance?) way more fleshed out through a series of knockout duets and fearlessly bad dance routines. How refreshing it must be for those two classically trained performers to move like that!
A few nagging problems do cling like wet feathered fringe. The token black character fits into the '90s movie aesthetic but sticks out today, though as a member of the song and dance ensemble Louis Williams Jr. shines. Romy and Michelle's inevitable conflict still comes off too sudden and unearned. The most awkward sequence in the film, the reveal of the Post-it lie, doesn't grow out of its awkward phase on stage. And most disappointingly, the conclusion to a key character's story (an invention for the stage version) repeats the cliche that a woman has to put on heels and flat iron her hair in order to find a man—a move that negates both the character and the general message of the play.
And that message is to let your flag fly, however colorful. Fitting then that Romy and Michele debuts during Pride—the closing number could easily read as a celebration of being out and proud.
Maybe I'm too unkind to the film, which also aims for the feel-good. No character in either, with the exception of Christie and her jock boyfriend turned sad sack husband, is mean spirited. Not even Mooney, who is all bristle on the outside but just wants so badly to be loved. Hannah Schuerman embodies this good nature as yearbook editor and reunion organizer Toby Walters—sort of the chorus of the play and maybe even its closet MVP—whose overflow of enthusiasm and stalwart belief that people are worth it feels so good in 2017. Of course I'll sign your yearbook, Toby. And count me in for the 20-year reunion.
Romy and Michele's High School Reunion
June 8–July 2, 5th Avenue Theatre, $29–$71