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'Clueless' review: Dove Cameron endearing as Cher in '90s adaptation

The production joins a trio of high school musicals already playing on NYC stages: "Dear Evan Hansen," "Mean Girls" and "The Prom."

Dove Cameron, left, and Zurin Villanueva star in

Dove Cameron, left, and Zurin Villanueva star in "Clueless, The Musical," playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Photo Credit: Monique Carboni

If you go: “Clueless, The Musical” runs through Jan. 12 at the Pershing Square Signature Center. 480 W. 42nd St., thenewgroup.org.

“In the ‘90s, everything is awesome . . . Fashions are fly, music rocks, the whole world loves America, even the president is a Baldwin,” Beverly Hills teen idol Cher Horowitz cheerily explains at the start of “Clueless,” a peppy but disappointing stage musical adaptation of Amy Heckerling’s much beloved 1995 high school rom-com, which is receiving its world premiere in an Off-Broadway production by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

It is surprising that “Clueless” (which is considered an instantly quotable modern classic) did not head straight to Broadway following a regional run (not unlike “Mean Girls,” another adaptation of a female-centric teen movie), and that the production (directed by Kristin Hanggi, “Rock of Ages”) is so modestly-scaled.

I must confess to being a longtime fan of the film, which surely affects my opinion of the show. I was 11 years old when “Clueless” came out on VHS — and I proceeded to watch it repeatedly, even though its sassy (and very smart) adult humor eluded me at the time.

Based upon Jane Austen’s “Emma,” “Clueless” follows Cher (originally played by Alicia Silverstone, now played by Disney Channel star Dove Cameron) as she navigates her insulated world of friends, luxury, parties, matchmaking and cultured slang.

Although songwriter Stephen Trask (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) was hired years ago to write an original score for the musical, it now comes to us in the form of yet another jukebox musical, using approximately 20 ‘90s pop-rock hits, including “No Scrubs,” “Torn” and “Bye Bye Bye.”

As it happens, a musical adaptation of the 1999 teen drama “Cruel Intentions” played Off-Broadway last year and also had a score made up of hits from that decade, including a few that are also used in “Clueless,” which goes to show that a pretty generic template has been slapped onto “Clueless.”

Heckerling (who is credited as the musical’s sole author) awkwardly tinkers with the lyrics in a clunky attempt to make them more applicable to the storyline and characters of “Clueless,” Her book closely follows her original screenplay but relies heavily on nostalgia for easy laughs (for instance, the sound of a dial-up modem).

Hanggi’s production is aggressively silly and self-aware (not unlike “Rock of Ages”), so much so that it often resembles an affectionate parody of “Clueless.” Kelly Devine’s hyperactive dance choreography (in which ensemble members leap onstage and break into big movements while facing the audience) is ill-suited to such an intimate theater.

Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design (with digital projections against a plaid, skirt-shaped backdrop) is minimal, which keeps our attention on Amy Clark’s crafty costumes, which combine high fashion with casual attire (including baggy pants and “South Park” T-shirts).

Cameron (who was terrific in “Hairspray Live!” two years ago) makes for a vulnerable and endearing Cher. The supporting cast members are mostly fine, but they lack the personality and attitude that the actors in the film (including the late Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Stacey Dash, Breckin Meyer and Donald Faison) brought to the roles.

There is probably not a need for “Clueless” to transfer to Broadway, where three high school musicals (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “Mean Girls” and “The Prom”) are already playing and another (“Be More Chill”) will soon open.

Once the amateur licensing rights are released, the musical will surely be a popular title among high school theater groups. However, Heckerling might want to take a step back and reconsider doing “Clueless” with an original score that artfully evokes (instead of cannibalizes) the ‘90s.

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