Ethan Jih-Cook, the 18-year-old recent high school graduate playing Damian Hubbard in “Mean Girls,” has a message for the real Damian.
“Thanks for creating a role that is so special to me and a lot of people like me, who are chubby and gay,” Jih-Cook told Billy Penn. “I don’t see a lot of me in the media. Seeing myself in the media is great, so just a big thank you.”
Yes, there is a real Damian — Damian Holbrook, now a 54-year-old senior writer at TV Guide.
Growing up in Delco, Holbrook was friends with Elizabeth Stamatina Fey, who, after graduating from Upper Darby High School and learning theater at Upper Darby’s star-producing Summer Stage program, would shorten her stage name as she rose to comedy fame.
Most now know her as Tina Fey, who borrowed several names and situations from local friends and family to write “Mean Girls,” which runs Oct. 3-8 at Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Miller Theater on South Broad.
Like the popular 2004 movie, the musical takes place in suburban Illinois, drawing laughter and humanity from teenage angst and cruelty. A new girl learns just how emotionally treacherous high school alliances can be.
Fortunately, the newcomer has Damian on her side.
Holbrook met Fey at Summer Stage when he was 13. He graduated from nearby Monsignor Bonner High School and lives in Haverford. The Damian character, he says, is an amalgamation of himself and his older brother Jim. Holbrook’s brother and Fey worked together in Summer Stage’s costume shop.
“The movie version is far more me and the musical version is far more my brother,” Holbrook said. “He’s a show tunes fan, very flamboyant, very funny, and literally can drop a show tune lyric” into any conversation.”
Holbrook, who was touched by Jih-Cook’s message, said it’s been exciting to see the various Damians.
“It’s been awesome. I’ve never seen a chubby gay kid who was not presented as something other than victim, or literally was the victim,” Holbrook said. But the character is no stereotype. “Everyone knew a Damian, whether they were in the closet or not.”
“It’s almost like my superpower,” Holbrook said. “I may not have had a huge impact on the world, but this character has definitely made an impression. He’s been embraced by people.”
It certainly made an impression on Jih-Cook’s career, who landed this professional touring gig right out of high school.
Instead of college, a professional tour
Like Holbrook, Jih-Cook grew up in the world of childhood theater. Unlike Holbrook, he never joined Upper Darby’s legendary Summer Stage program, but knew lots of young actors who did. “It’s a small world,” he said.
Jih-Cook, who lives in Center City and graduated from Wynnewood’s Friends’ Central High School in June, participated in the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ ShowStoppers summer program, and has performed at the Arden, the Walnut, and Quintessence.
“I was in South Pacific at the Walnut Street Theater when I was 11 years old,” he said. “That was the real indication that I really wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”
When “Mean Girls” issued an open call for his role, he responded on a whim. “I’m 18. There’s no way I’m getting this,” he told himself.
But he did.
So, this fall, instead of settling into a freshman dormitory, he’s hitting the road on a nine-month, 60-city-plus tour.
“I was a little scared before rehearsals,” he said. “But [the cast and crew] are so funny and loving, they’ve become like a family to me.”
Jih-Cook said Friends’ Central was a kind, nurturing place, with barely any of the nastiness found in the musical.
“Everyone in this show has an aspect of mean,” Jih-Hook said. “It’s about learning and growing. You obviously aren’t an adult. You are trying to learn how to act as a person.”
Want to spot the local connections? Check them out below, though keep in mind that while names may be close, the characters are fictitious, as Fey has insisted in many interviews.
- “You go, Glen Coco!” hearkens to Glenn Cocco, a film editor and friend of Fey’s older brother
- When character Regina compliments a classmate’s bracelet and immediately bad-mouths it to friends, she’s channeling Fey’s mother, Zenobia “Jeanne” Fey. “My mom has this habit that if she sees a lady in a really ugly hat or a glittery sweatshirt, she’ll go ‘I love your shirt’ and I’ll say ‘Mom, that’s really mean,’ And she’ll say, ‘Clearly, she wanted someone to notice that shirt. She picked it out. It has a huge Teddy Bear on it,’” Fey explained in an interview.
- Mathlete Tyler Kimble is named after Fey’s friend Marlene’s son. “He was probably one or two at the time,” Holbrook said. “Now he’s graduated from Temple and lives in Austin.”
- Character Gretchen Wieners shares a last name with Tracey Wieners, a friend of Fey’s.
- Character Karen Smith is named after Fey’s classmate Karen Smith.
“Mean Girls,” Oct. 3-8 | Miller Theater, 250 S. Broad St. | kimmelculturalcampus.org or 215-893-1999
Even if you don’t have tickets, you can dress up in pink to celebrate Mean Girls Day on Tuesday, commemorating when characters Cady and Aaron first interact. Show up outside the Miller Theater from 5 to 7 p.m. for pink mocktails, photo-ops, and pink doughnuts. The musical starts at 7:30 p.m.