Book by Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy; Directed by Andy Frickman
Off Broadway, New Musical
Runs through 8.4.14
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street
by Shani R. Friedman on 4.6.14
Heathers. Photo by Chad Batka.
BOTTOM LINE: The pitch-black high school satire gets a musical comedy gloss that will please the die-hards as well as those less familiar with the story and its memorable lines.
Cult classic Heathers, largely ignored by audiences initially, just celebrated the 25th anniversary of its release and is getting a splashy stage upgrade with nearly two dozen songs. I was a teenager trapped in the Midwest and desperate for escape when I saw it, and the story of alienation and popularity in an oppressive Ohio high school really clicked with me. I was a little trepidatious but very curious as to how the anarchy and mayhem would work as a musical.
Not to worry: the plot closely follows Daniel Waters’s original screenplay (his first, incidentally), featuring the poisonous Heathers trinity (Jessica Keenan Wynn as ringleader Heather Chandler, Elle McLemore as Heather McNamara and Alice Lee as Heather Duke). The Heathers run Westerberg High and extend a loaded invitation to protagonist and skilled forger Veronica Sawyer (Barrett Wilbert Weed) to join their clique. Also included in the musical are the sexually charged 7-11 run-in between heroine Veronica and charming, deeply troubled anti-authority rebel J.D. (Ryan McCartan), innocent and bullied Martha “Dumptruck” (Katie Ladner), the Croquet games, and the increasing body count. Although there are a few nods to slightly more modern times (mentions of breast implants, date rape), the '80s sensibility is largely intact: pay phones pop up along with shoulder pads, references to the radio and eating disorders.
The new incarnation mainly succeeds by not messing with the spirit of the movie, and thanks to fun, well-paced tunes sung by a solid cast. They’re very energetic and attractive, arguably more slick and polished than the largely unknown actors in the low-budget original. One of my favourite songs is “Dead Girl Walking,” a rock number sung by Weed and McCartan, who display strong, passionate yearning voices. Comparisons are inevitable and while Weed is not as edgy or dark as Winona Ryder, she makes for a compelling protagonist. McCartan -- who distinguishes himself from Christian Slater’s portrayal with its shades of Jack Nicholson -- is charismatic even as he’s steadily unraveling, making Veronica’s push-pull relationship with J.D. believable. A song that was, not surprisingly, a crowd pleaser was “My Dead Gay Son,” done in a sort of rousing church revival style as the formerly homophobic fathers (Anthony Crivello and Daniel Cooney) of the two dead football players, Ram (Jon Eidson) and Kurt (Evan Todd), embrace the idea of their sons’ “secret.” In a new 21st century tweak, they also admit to their own latent feelings for one another. Another new addition is a Greek chorus of the dead teenage villains haunting Veronica, a device that effectively enhances her growing inner turmoil. A couple of songs such as “Candy Store” and “Shine a Light” come across as lyrically weaker and could either be cut or replaced by dialogue that gets the point across instead.
Although musicals can be tricky to pull off, especially when there’s beloved source material, for this long-time fan the stage version builds off a tight script and creates a new winning way to experience the bite and dark humour of Heathers. And if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll spot Christian Slater in the audience...as we did.
(Heathers: The Musical plays at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, through August 4, 2014. Performances are Mondays at 8PM; Wednesdays through Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2:30PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 3PM and 7:30PM. Tickets are $50-$75 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For more show info visit heathersthemusical.com.)