july 2016 | volume 145
Heathers: The Musical is dark and amusing. The 2014 adaptation of the 1988 cult film Heathers presents a nightmare vision of high school bullying, idiocy and conformity that morphs into a very black comedy about teen suicide, homophobia and the kind of gun violence and mass revenge killings that have been part of the American landscape since long before ISIS came along. That this Fighting Chance production is already the second Vancouver staging of the show since January says something about how timely and bleakly contemporary it feels.
As a rock musical about high school, Heathers is a showcase for young performers, and director Ryan Mooney has gathered an energetic cast of 16 in a lively production that embraces the show’s absurdities more than its pathologies.
For those who don’t know the movie, as I didn’t, our heroine is Veronica (Julia Ullrich), a smart wannabe-nonconformist who can’t resist the pressure and allure of the three nasty Heathers who run their small-town Ohio high school, led by Cruella De Ville in training, Heather Chandler (Alishia Suitor). The first casualty of Veronica’s alliance with the Heathers is her friendship with sweet, overweight, naïve Martha (Annastasia Unger), cruelly nicknamed Martha Dumptruck. The Heathers’ dumb-jock allies, Kurt (Ben Bilodeau) and Ram (Thomas King), are particularly gross and obnoxious to her. But when they try to bully the new guy in school, trenchcoat-wearing, Baudelaire-reading J.D. (David Z. Cohen), he beats them up (in great slo mo) and becomes Veronica’s boyfriend.
But J.D. has his own problems—Mommy and Daddy issues—and his initial attractiveness masks a violent sociopathology and gun fetish. Pretty soon he causes the death of the über-Heather, and then the two jocks after they conspire with Heather #2 (Leah Newsome) to claim they’ve had three-way sex with Veronica. Veronica manages to make the murders look like suicides, which in turn inspires suicide attempts by Martha and Heather #3 (YooRa Kang). Finally, Veronica has to thwart J.D. from blowing up the entire school. Like Heathers the movie, the musical has a jarringly outrageous happy ending.
The show has some clever twists. The dead kids become choral characters, speaking and singing inside Veronica’s head. The fake suicide notes Veronica writes for them inspire the show’s funniest, most ironic numbers: “The Me Inside of Me” (the dead Heather’s supposed lament that no one saw the real her behind the bitchy façade) and “My Dead Gay Son” (Ram and Kurt’s fathers’ acceptance of their son’s supposed homosexuality, the shameful forbidden love for which they supposedly killed themselves). Plus lots of energetic party songs and nastily funny stuff like Kurt and Ram’s song about blue balls when they try to corner Veronica for sex in the cemetery—a scene that disconcertingly looks like it will end in rape.
The principals are all very good, with a special shout-out to the beefy King who really makes a meal of Ram and doubles goofily as both his own father and J.D.’s. No one but Unger seems to have a great voice (she shows hers off in the second act ballad “Kindergarten Boyfriend”) but it’s hard to tell because musical director Clare Wyatt’s rock band tends to drown out much of the singing and obscure the lyrics. Getting the musical-vocal balance right is a chronic problem in local musicals, especially in smaller venues like the Waterfront.
Most of the opening night audience was young enough that the indignities of high school were still relatively fresh, and they responded raucously. But even someone like me, long removed from that environment, can appreciate the way art transforms horror into humour and entertainment while maintaining its dark edges. I can hardly wait for Trump: The Musical.
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