When ‘Mean Girls’ opened at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Miller Theater (on stage now through Oct. 8), its smartly irreverent book from Upper Darby’s Tina Fey, its contagious musical throughline courtesy of composer Jeff Richmond and the catty comic camaraderie of its female leads played by Natalie Shaw, Maya Petropoulus, Alexys Morera, Kristen Amanda Smith and MaryRose Brendel are a given.
But what of the men of ‘Mean Girls‘, Philly’s Ethan Jih-Cook and Pittsburgh’s Justin Phillips?
As the adult Mr. Duvall, the high school’s proud principle, Phillips was quick to mention how in a cast of “male- presenting, female-presenting, all kinds-of gender expressed on that stage, that, to be a male-presenting actor is wonderful.” Plus, the ‘Mean Girls’ women can truly “rock out,” according to Phillips, an emotion that Jih-Cook seconds.
Jih-Cook goes further and more Philly in his storytelling, mentioning his start in the Philadelphia Boys Choir as a child, along with performances in summer camp.
“It wasn’t until I booked my first regional production at 11-years-old in South Pacific at the Walnut – such a large mainstage production – that I knew I wanted to spend my life doing theater,” he said. “Philly has such great theater education programs for kids, so many options.”
The recent Friends Central School graduate also had roles in ‘Gypsy’ (Arden Theatre), and ‘Oliver!’ (Quintessence). As for Jih-Cook’s role as Damian in ‘Mean Girls’, Jih-Cook describes the character as one of the first friends that Cady (Natalie Shaw) makes in her move from Kenya to America.
“Along with Janis (Alexys Morera), we get labelled as the art-freaks, one of the classic cliché high school cliques. And I see Damian as an extension of myself, so-much-so that, in rehearsal, when I had to think of acting choices, I found myself asking, “What would I do?”
As for Phillips and Jih-Cook’s favorite ‘Mean Girls’ moments during the second show of the tour in Philadelphia, they point to the songs “I’d Rather Be Me” and “Stop!, a “crazy tap number” (says Jih-Cook) in a lifetime of tap lessons.
“To be able to do an iconic (director-choreographer) Casey Nicholaw tap number is amazing,” says Jih-Cook. “Every time I hit that last button, that last note, it’s just crazy. It feels amazing to do.”
Since Jih-Cook mentioned Quintessence, let’s note how the Germantown Avenue theater will run — through Oct. 28 — two shows in reparatory with the same four-person cast: George Bernard Shaw’s look at haves-and-have-nots, ‘Major Barbara‘, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential view of the afterlife, ‘No Exit‘.
Wearing many hats on one head, Alexander Burns is the Artistic Director of Quintessence Theatre Group, is directing both ‘Major Barbara’ and ‘No Exit’, is both production’s set designer, and got the first-ever permission from the Satre Estate to craft a new translation of ‘No Exit’. This rare feat was accomplished by writing to estate reps that Quintessence was interested in presenting a more literal translation of Sartre’s French.
“My intent was to make the English concise, and as similar to Sartre’s rhythms as possible,” said Burns of going against the grain of the often-used Paul Bowles adaptation familiar to a 1940s mid-Atlantic American audience. “My brain and creative soul has been profoundly grateful to explore the play through the original French, dictionary in hand, jumping back and forth between the French and the English…my mind blown by Sartre’s ferocity and philosophy.”
The arrival of Theatre Philadelphia’s new Executive Director Sabriaya Shipley, a Philly-favored LGBTQ Black artist and community ethnographer, was huge news at the start of the 2023-2024 season. Shipley’s first initiatives will be geared around galvanizing community engagement through social media. Ideas regarding the voices of young students and their engagement with the theater process are also as part of Theatre Philadelphia’s new agenda.
“BiPoc youth without access to theater, and how we value that voice,” and making certain that all Philadelphia theater is well documented are priorities for Shipley going forward.
“When the media says no, we have to pivot,” she said about controlling the narrative. Now, Shipley and CJ Higgins (Theatre Philadelphia’s Operations/Programs Coordinator) are doubling-down on fresh TP news with an announcement of the first post-pandemic, live Barrymore Awards ceremony since 2019.
Currently, 43 area productions are Barrymore-nominated with People’s Light nailing the most noms at 24.
“There will also be a new recognition, an acknowledgement of people in the local theater community, who have contributed in terms of education and through civil activism,” said Shipley. “We have also shifted our Lifetime Achievement Award to a series called “Living Legends” that will premiere this October where we’ll honor, from now until next July, a different still-living legend, those who play a role in sustaining theater in Philadelphia. And it’s going to be party.”
The 2023 Barrymore Awards will be held at FringeArts HQ on Nov. 13 with tickets available starting Oct. 13, at theatrephiladelphia.org.