REVIEW: Heathers – The Musical
*NOTE: These are merely the thoughts of a theatre lover, not necessarily a theatre critic.
HEATHERS – THE MUSICAL
Book, music and lyric authors Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe know how to write a musical following a tried and true formula. An opening number like “Beautiful” grabs you by the shirt collar and draws you it….and follow-up numbers like “Candy Store” firmly establishes our antagonists and offers a kick of dark comedy. By the unbelievably catchy “Dead Girl Walking”, halfway through Act One, I found myself thinking…..”CRAP! I think this is a musical I’m going to really like.” Which is weird, because before I even walked into the theatre, I was mulling through my mixed emotions about this late 80’s cult movie turned musical.
HEATHERS, (which is widely recognized as Hollywood vehicles for then-freshman Christian Slater and Wynona Ryder) seems to be perfect fodder for a stage adaption. It offers murder, bullying, love, lust, danger and high school stereotypes, cliques and strife….not necessarily in that order. HEATHERS in the end left me thinking “well…it’s not a PERFECT musical, but it’s not a bad musical either.” I found myself whistling a song in the taxi on the ride back…that speaks to its likability. They’re doing something right.
It’s 1989 and we’re blinded at first glance with the neon world of Veronica Sawyer (played this evening by Charissa Hogeland…a first-rate performer in her own right) who’s life is ritualistic in that it sucks pretty bad. Her and her only friend, Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (another brilliant performer Katie Lander) are routinely picked on, humiliated and for the most part treated as nonentities by the elite, the popular and the more athletic. You know, typical high school stuff. We meet “the Heathers” a waxy trio of Barbie-doll like, big-banged divas who rule the school. (The parallels to the popular Lindsay Lohan MEAN GIRLS movie are uncanny. But remember, HEATHERS came first!) Of course they are terrible to Veronica until she saves them from detention by forging a hall pass launching herself into the Heathers’ world as their handy resource. (Like some sort of dressed-up, decked-out human Trapper Keeper.) She’s all too willing to oblige as she is now respected. Of course her friendship to Martha suffers, because while Veronica dresses up nicely, everyone is always mean to the fat girl.
Enter J.D., played by Christian Slater look-alike Dave Thomas Brown. He’s the black trench coat-wearing, hair-tossing hunk of a bad boy that wrestles with authority, breaks the rules, quotes controversial novels and everything else ideal dreamboats do. Veronica and J.D. wind up together (including a fully-clothed but suggestive sex scene, I’m reminded of Avenue Q. Why?) and seem to be poised to answer each other’s life questions. The problem is Veronica has stepped in to defend the loveable but naive Martha one too many times and now socially banished by the Heathers and nearly everyone in school. What does one do in a black musical comedy when they are wronged? That’s right….kill the accuser. Rather predictable, but we are then turned on our heels when the now-dead Heather soliloquies over the shoulder of Veronica as she forges her suicide note. (A clever devise…and good fun. But, much like the “Dear Diary” narration in the beginning of Act One…is quickly disregarded when the plot device is inconvenient and becomes the show’s “wallpaper”…it’s there in the background…but does anyone really care about wallpaper?)
At the risk of giving too much away…let’s just say that the plot thickens and becomes more and more dangerous. J.D. slow-burns into a complete enigma and we wonder at the turning point who is the real villain here. We have a new enemy as one of the remaining Heathers steps up to don the “lead Heather” position of authority (by putting on the infamous red scrunchy….a prop that was terribly ill-used, in my opinion. I know it is a staple of the movie…but the authors could have given it more significance or it’s own moment / song…make it a magical scrunchy, or something….but it serves as a mere after thought and doesn’t carry any gravity).
Iconic lines are delivered (and in some cases given their own musical numbers…”My Dead Gay Son” squeezed every drop of funny you could possibly imagine out of a single one-liner) and we reach a cross-roads when J.D. proves to be way more dangerous that Veronica ever imagines.
We watch Veronica struggle with wanting to be good and do what’s right as she discovers that it’s not necessarily the individual that makes a situation “bad”…and by eliminating that “bad” person…one only creates another “bad” situation. Not a “bad” message, actually. But the problem is the show kinda holds us hostage in the second act when the forward momentum should propel us into even further madness, requiring us to demand a sane outcome (much like Veronica.) Unfortunately…and allow me to point out the problem, like every good bully should….the second act is a veritable see-saw of unbelievable poignant moments (like cheerleader Heather’s “Lifeboat” ballad…one of the highlights of the entire show) and big idea moments like secondary character Ms. Fleming’s flashlight clad dance number “Shine a Light” which is very catchy…but completely out of place and leaves you wondering “what was that all about?” (Who really cares about Ms. Fleming? Leave her as a device.)
The momentum of the second act made me tired…as we hiccuped our way to the final moments. The finale seemed to be well-received by the audience…but I still challenge patrons to consider that it seems a tad unlikely that people “return” after being shot and fall to the ground seemingly dead (ala every corny horror movie)….Martha’s failed suicide attempt and follow-up appearance on a motorized hospital scooter garnishes the absolute wrong reaction to this very likable and tortured character…..and am I REALLY supposed to be believe the final bad-girl Heather has turned-around completely simply because it’s the end of the show and she turns to an awkward ensemble member and smiles? Too convenient. (I had the same reaction after Hairspray. Really? The VonTussels are good guys now? Please.) Everything seems rushed, which is too bad, because the ballad-y closing number, “Seventeen” is quite good. (Although the improvised, super long-winded post curtain call dance party onstage was nothing short of awkward. I just stood there, like an out-of-place high school stereotype at a popular girl’s party.
The show wreaks of LEGALLY BLONDE influences and the costuming, while simple and effective (there are hardly ANY costume changes…they wear the same thing the whole show…but we buy into it) is completely ripped off from the movie CLUELESS. The unit set is minimal (and a smart choice) and while the choreography is perfect for each moment….it certainly wasn’t the cleanest dancing I’ve seen. (Someone behind me actually said “you can tell it’s an Off-Broadway show. Ouch.)
In pontificating about the show, my wife said to me, “yeah…but you haven’t seen the movie. If you had, it would make more sense.” But I see that as yet another problem of the stage adaption…you shouldn’t HAVE to see the movie in order to “buy into” every choice. Theatrical momentum should be presented so as to serve the story on its own.
Overall…I enjoyed it. I’ll get the soundtrack. I do predict, however, that one-by-one theatre patrons will start to die off…and pretty soon the show will close. I do think however, it’ll be reborn again and have a brilliant and much sought-after amateur theatre afterlife.