Sara Troxell, Lauren McCombs, Shelby Brown, & Brandis DeWilligen in Heathers The Musical. Photo courtesy Acting Against Cancer.
Heathers The Musical
Book, Music, & Lyrics by Kevin Murphy & Laurence O’ Keefe
Directed by Whitten Montgomery
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2017 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
This is the second time I have seen a production of the stage Heathers, and I am a fan of the original movie, so it is noteworthy that this new production from Acting Against Cancer gave me an even greater understanding of the material. Its what a classic demands (and Heathers IS now a classic) from any company who takes it on: imbue a sense of discovery to familiar material, or else, what’s the point?
Of course, the musical is very different in important ways. The original film, a mordant comedy of manners, remains a cult classic; the musical moves more certainly into mainstream culture, because setting the heart of darkness to a tuneful score always makes it more palatable.
If you don’t know it already, the story tells of the three Heathers, Chandler (Brandis DeWilligen), Duke (Lauren McCombs), and McNamara (Sara Troxel), who rule the social structure of their mid-western high school with an iron fist. In a moment of shared opportunity, they embrace nerdy Veronica (Shelby Brown), giving her a makeover and raising her to the top of the social ladder. At the same time, Veronica meets J.D. (Charlie Meredith), a trench-coated, rebellious, loner who stands up to football squad bullies Kurt (Remy Sisk) and Ram (Kyle Braun). J.D. immediately pulls Veronica out of the thrall of the Heathers, with tragic consequences.
Teenage suicide, repressed homosexuality, and frankly prurient adolescent view of sexuality in general may seem like unlikely themes for an hilarious musical comedy, but Heathers accomplishes by building a lively and entertaining mélange of satire and good music, and Whitten Montgomery’s production realizes all of it beautifully. In her curtain speech, Ms. Montgomery called directing Heathers a dream, and it this is among her best work.
As Veronica, Shelby Brown sings and dances like a pro, but she also charts the characters transitions with assurance, moving from quirky, nerdy newbie through popularity and winding up fiercely keeping a grip on her moral center despite a rising body count. It’s a winning performance that emphasizes the greater depth that the musical brings to Veronica, and she is matched by Charlie Meredith’s cool, cold, and, ultimately, psychotic J.D. Brandis DeWilligen plays the tyrannical lead Heather, and one of the most interesting things the stage adaptation does is (((spoiler alert))) bring her back after her tragic demise to comment on the proceedings, and DeWillingen’s best moments come when her character speaks from beyond the grave. Lauren McCombs plays the second meanest – the green Heather, with perhaps an even nastier edge once she becomes leader of the pack, and reminds us why she is a talent every musical theatre director in town wants in their cast. Sara Troxell is the underused Heather, the most compassionate one, but one thing the show does well is give just about every character a moment in the spotlight, and Ms.Troxell does well by her solo number, “Lifeboat.”
That magnanimity extends to Rebecca Worthington’s put upon Martha Dunnstock when she sings “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” and Heidi Platt’s overly idealistic teacher Ms. Fleming trying to inspire the student body in “Shine A Light.” Josh Gilliam lights a fire at the top of the second act with the outrageous “My Dead Gay Son,” and Remy Sisk and Kyle Braun have a lot of lunk-headed fun as the two bullying jocks in “Blue,” a song about sexual frustration in typically coarse, albeit hilarious teenage terms. For such a dark show, Heathers shows a lot of love to its ensemble.
Gayle King is in charge of the music, so you know its going to be right, and special kudos to Michael Vettraino’s nicely textured guitar. Maggie Patten’s choreography is dynamic and on target, if not particularly original, and the lighting and set design all succeed in service to director Montgomery’s clean and open staging. The body microphones on Saturday night were malfunctioning quite a bit, a problem that was not entirely mitigated by the second act. Mr. Meredith suffered the most in this instance, and it was an unfortunate distraction in an otherwise top-notch production.
It is an easy temptation to equate theatre with current events, but if current events are, on their most fundamental level, just the latest expression of some of the most troubling societal dynamics, then Heathers can claim to comment on the equally cyclical dynamic of the cruel and unforgiving peer and community pressures forced onto kids at their most vulnerable time. Veronica and J.D. are outsiders – the “other,” playing out a particularly nasty revenge fantasy that gets out of hand. It’s a story that always has relevance.
Yet Heathers The Musical is not a show that invites lugubrious interpretation; it is a high-energy piece of entertainment with a delicious satirical edge, and Acting Against Cancer here gives it a full-blooded rendering.
Heathers The Musical
January 27 – February 11, 2017
Tickets: $20 in advance and $22 at the door and are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2713701
Acting Against Cancer
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.