“Dear Diary: my teenage angst bullshit has a body count”.
The thing to remember about Heathers: The Musical is that it is based on the 1989 film starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. For some that should be either a warning, or a reason to go. For those that might not be familiar with the source material, suffice to say the musical really is just lipstick on a pig.
As a refresher, I watched the Ryder/Slater film the day after seeing opening night of the musical version currently on stage at the York Theatre. Surprisingly, given how dreadful the film is, the Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe penned musical follows the film very closely. As a result, both suffer the same identity crisis.
Is Heathers (film or musical) intended to satirize the cruelty of high school, or is actually glorifying it? Perhaps it all depends on which side of the equation you found yourself during your own high school experience, but it is tough to feel sorry for both victim and perpetrator. It is even more difficult when the victim becomes the perpetrator.
The musical’s tone also doesn’t help as it moves between the serious and the ridiculous at the swing of a croquet mallet, and both play way too fast-and-loose with the issue of teen suicide.
Heathers tells the story of high schooler Veronica Sawyer who finds herself on the inside with the popular girls, three bitches who all happen to be named Heather. Along with the football jocks, they rule the school, making life a living hell for anyone who crosses them or their path. Realizing that being part of the ruling clique isn’t all it is cracked up to be, Veronica seeks her revenge with the help of her new boyfriend, the mysterious, raincoat wearing J.D.
No doubt looking to give theatre audiences their money’s worth, Murphy and O’Keefe have expanded the Heathers story from the film’s 100 minutes to nearly 150 minutes (with intermission). Its length becomes problematic, as while the opening number “Beautiful” immediately sets us on an inevitable trajectory, it isn’t until well into the second act that we find ourselves back to the central idea that high school doesn’t have to be such an unpleasant experience, if only we can all just get along. In between we’re served up a whole slew of teen problems in song, including fat-shaming (“Big Fun”), date-rape (“Blue”), losing one’s virginity (“Dead Girl Walking”) and a particularly uninspired number about acceptance (“My Dead Gay Son”).
Despite its problems, there are a few nice performances here. As Veronica, Christine Quintana’s voice is spot-on, but you never really feel the inner conflict of someone who uses the cool kids as a way to escape high school hell. Surprisingly, there is little chemistry between herself and Kamyar Pazandeh who plays the rebel J.D, and we never quite believe the hold he has on Veronica. Nevertheless, Pazandeh also has a terrific voice, although one can’t help but think he might be more at home singing Sinatra or Bublé.
As the three Heathers, Synthia Yusuf, Devon Busswood and Nhi Do are a welcome diverse clique. Yusuf goes for the gusto as her dead Heather, but in allowing some of the scenes to swing too far into the ridiculous actually undermines the satire.
Colin Sheen and Hal Wesley Rogers take their randy teenagers to the extreme, although Sheen makes everything look effortlessness. As Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock, Steffanie Davis gives a beautiful rendition of “Kindergarten Boyfriend”.
Under the direction of David C Jones, the York stage always seems crowded and receives little help from set designer Sarah Mabberley’s drab moveable set pieces. Sacha Picard is more successful with the costumes, although some of the wigs were about as distracting as Michael Methot and Graham Ockley’s lighting design. Kyra Soko’s sound design was less than stellar as we got lost lyrics and sound effects that often times didn’t quite seem to jive with what was happening on stage.
Heathers never did very well at the box office, but did go on to become a cult classic. For those that inexplicably discovered and then fell in love with the film, the musical has a built-in fan base. For the rest of us though, it really isn’t so very.
Heathers: The Musical with book and music by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe. A Gently with a Chainsaw Artists’ Collective production. On stage at the York Theatre (639 Commercial Dr, Vancouver) until January 17. Visit https://thecultch.com for tickets and information.