A Publication of WTVP

It’s Not Easy Being Mean

by Laurie Pillman | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Gia Gardner, Lia Zurek, Kara Hofman and Kyleigh Allen rehearse their roles
Gia Gardner, Lia Zurek, Kara Hofman and Kyleigh Allen rehearse their roles

Peoria’s Richwoods High School takes on Mean Girls the Musical

As the vice president of the Children’s Community Theater Board and the director of several local musicals, Gillian Cramer has worked with actors young and old. She encourages the sense of ownership teenagers bring to the theater.

When this year’s students told her they wanted to perform something other than classics like Cinderella or Oklahoma, she used it as a teaching experience. 

“I said, if you guys want to do it, you need to come up with your arguments and present it to the principal because this is your school. This is your musical … You’ve got to take ownership of it.”

Director Gillian Cramer

That’s precisely what they did. While their initial pitch, a darker musical with more mature content, didn’t make the cut, the principal was open to the students performing a modern show. In September 2022, Music Theater International offered community and high school theater rights to Mean Girls the Musical. Everything came together.

“I appreciate that Richwoods is brave enough to let us try something like this,” Cramer said. Richwoods is the first school in the Peoria area to perform the musical.

Based on the 2004 film Mean Girls, the musical follows student Cady Heron as she enrolls in an Illinois public high school after years of being home-schooled in Africa. She contends with the high school hierarchy, including a vicious group of girls called “The Plastics,” led by Regina George. 

Students AJ Mitchel, Gia Gardner, Lia Zurek, Kara Hofman and Kyleigh Allen rehearse

The Broadway production opened in 2018, featuring a script adaptation by original screenwriter and Saturday Night Live alum Tina Fey. The community and high school licensing includes a full version of the show and pre-approved script edits tailored to teen performers. These edits offer options to tone down more controversial material and places to customize lines to reflect the community.

More students auditioned this year than in previous years because of the musical’s themes, said Cramer.

“Kids really want to be doing something that speaks to what kind of struggles and reality they’re going through. And this, in a fun way, does speak to that,” she said.
“We have all known a bully. We all know that there are cliques in school. Where do we fit in? Where do we belong? I think the kids are very excited.” 

Cast members don’t hold back when asked what they enjoy about the show.

“It’s kind of a caricatured version of what our high school life is like,” said Lia Zurek, who plays bully Regina George. “I think it’s such a fun way to demonstrate what our day-to-day experiences are like in high school.”

“The music is super fun,” adds Savannah Maughan, who plays the role of Janice. “The wardrobe is fun. It’s a very important story, and we have a fun cast to work with. I think they will bring a lot of energy to this show that our audience will enjoy being a part of.”

Kyleigh Allen, who plays Cady, is excited to be working on a show that is both newly licensed for local theaters and carries such an iconic status. After a four-year break from theater, she says it’s a thrill to be working with such skilled actors and singers. “I’m very grateful to be a part of this cast. Everybody is so talented, and they’re wonderful people to work with.”

The students involved in the production come from diverse backgrounds. Many take part in other school activities. Freshman AJ Mitchell, who plays Damien, balances play rehearsals with baseball practice. He says participating in a show he loves is worth the scheduling difficulties.   

The group is full of laughter, but once rehearsal begins, they focus on improving each scene. The students push each other to try new interpretations and develop their characters.   

Cramer said it helps to work with such a capable cast. There was enough talent available this year for her to pull in two students, Naomi Toraason and Jaselin Petty, to serve as choreographers.

“From the ensemble up to the leads, everybody is on a great level,” Cramer said.

The respect is mutual.

“I’ve worked with Gil before, and she is a phenomenal director,” said ensemble member Milo Kellem. “One thing I love about her is that she encourages the students to come up with ideas themselves.”

It’s a built-in part of Cramer’s directorial philosophy. She wants students to take ownership of their acting. To her, students need the freedom to develop their characters.

“I give them the jumping board, and then I want them to take it to the next level with their characters. I love to see when they make a character their own, and they start improving. They’re getting it. They’re trusting themselves. They’re building their confidence, and that’s a beautiful thing to see in a kid or a teenager.”

‘Kids really want to be doing something that speaks to what kind of struggles and reality they’re going through’ — Director Gillian Cramer

The whole cast has been promoting the musical at RHS since early March by wearing pink on Wednesdays, a nod to a famous line from the show. They want to get the whole student body involved and excited. Cramer also believes the musical will be a gateway to getting other students interested in theater.

Mean Girls will be performed at the Richwoods High Auditorium the evenings of April 20-22, time to be determined. The show is open to the public. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students, and can be purchased at the door prior to the show. Email [email protected] regarding group rates.

Laurie Pillman

Laurie Pillman

is an author and freelance writer/editor, based in Peoria

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Richwood High School was the first school in this part of central Illinois to perform Mean Girls the Musical. As it turns out, Williamsfield Schools northwest of Peoria staged the musical about a week earlier, on April 14-16. We regret the error.