Updated: Jun 20, 2020
"...Greetings and Salutations! You wanna Slurpee with that?"
Any souls out there brave enough to admit they were popular in high school? O.K., other than former Vice-President Al Gore (which wasn’t the greatest career move).
The teenage kings and queens of the prom, the keg party golden boys — the bratty, rich kids who taunt and belittle the smart and sensitive ones — have now become first-choice villains in contemporary pop culture. They’re the winners we love to hate, with the assumed public acceptance that it’s okay to mock them savagely.
One of the most prominent entertainment paragons to capitalize on this satisfying loathing is “Heathers…” the rowdy guilty-pleasure musical that’s now in its second and final weekend at No Square Theatre in Laguna Beach, a show that turns an Ohio senior class in-crowd into a lineup of piñatas, waiting to be busted open. And when I say busted open, I am not speaking metaphorically.
Based on Daniel Waters’ screenplay for the 1988 Michael Lehmann classic film (which has found a flourishing afterlife in cult heaven), “Heathers, the Musical,” written and composed by Laurence O’Keefe (“Legally Blonde, the Musical”) along with Kevin Murphy (“Reefer Madness”), is darker than your average musical. Veronica Sawyer, played by Sara Teeter (“Tarzan,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), a geek with makeover possibilities and a gift for forgery, falls in with the popular Heathers on campus: queen bee Heather Chandler (Rhyan Belanger, “Violet,” “Spring Awakening”), Heather McNamara (Brooke Steuckrath, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Matilda”) and Heather Duke (Bonnie King, “Disneyland Fantasmic!”), who all truckle to Chandler’s every demand.
The three rule Westerburg High with expensively manicured fists of iron. With their more dimwitted male equivalents (embodied by Cole Fletcher and Abraham Arias), they mock and torture those who are less cosmetically perfect and more studious, with epithets usually banned in public discourse. “These are people I work for, and our job is being popular,” Veronica rationalizes to her former best friend – the overweight, natural-born, bully target Martha (Michaela Brown, “Sweeney Todd,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”).
This is all laid out during the effective opening number, “Beautiful,” where we learn that all Veronica wants is for the cutthroat aspect of high school to disappear. She’s looking for genuine respect, friendship, and connection – but once she is absorbed into the Heathers, everything just gets worse. She ends up in a medley of murders, suicide attempts and adolescent teenage politics, and her new heartthrob boyfriend, mysterious and malapert trenchcoat-wearing JD (Ricky Alleman, “Assassins,” “Music Man”), is right there at its core. “Freeze Your Brain,” his ode to the numbing ecstasy of Slurpees was mind-blowing.
The adaptation is tight and entertaining. The fast-moving plot, catchy music, bright costumes cause a trippy effect of being inside a bubble where crazy antics cause seventeen-year-olds to break out into song and dance. Ms. Teeter’s powerhouse voice with stratospheric range brings an emotional truth to her entire performance (“Dead Girl Walking,” “Pain in my Path”). And Mr. Alleman’s sizzling edge makes JD a believable loner outcast as he drives the story (“Meant to be Yours”). He melts any target in his path while the chemistry between the couple motors a Bonnie and Clyde-like take-down of Westerburg High School’s popular crowd by way of murders successfully disguised as suicides.
Heathers exposes the darker sides of 1980s high school life — from bullying and bulimia to scrunchies and shoulder pads — with a tone that feels part teen-dramedy and part horror-film camp. It was very much ahead of its time. “How very?” Heathers introduced such unforgettably delicious one-liners into the cultural lexicon as “Lick it up, baby,” and the film’s most cited line, which is delivered directly and archly to the audience by Ms. Belanger. I can’t quote it in full, but it involves using a chain saw for sexual gratification. That’s “Heathers” for you.
Even in the campy number, “You’re Welcome,” a little creepy, but otherwise too funny for words – where Mr. Fletcher’s Kurt (“Avenue Q,” “Singin’ In the Rain”) and Mr. Arias’ Ram (“Spitfire Grill: The Musical,” “Peter and the Starcatcher”), those bone-headed date-rape jocks from the football team, lament the state of their, and I use the term loosely, “manhood,” after being denied sex – it seems a little out-there.
Delving deeply into personal and sensitive topics, there are, however, some well-meaning attempts to connect with teenage isolation (Ms. Steuckrath’s “Lifeboat”). The show has moments of wonderful expression that are only ever really possible in musical theatre – snatches of lyrics, here and there, that strike a chord of authentic experience (Ms. Brown's, “Kindergarten Boyfriend”).
Those moments come largely from Veronica and exterminating angel JD, the distraught and damaged lovers who are fighting their own battle between good and evil. Ms. Teeter’s Veronica is a gifted singer (the pop-rock score calls for tenderness, a strong belt and serious bite, and she makes it seem effortless), but she’s a remarkable actor too. With Mr. Alleman’s generous partnering as the ultimate Baudelaire-quoting renegade who has a homicidal God complex, they forge a believably complex relationship, perhaps adding more dilemma and probing to the show than the source material. “Our love is God,” JD avows, after killing two people. With that kind of trauma and promise, what else is there to do?
Rhyan Belanger’s Heather Chandler falls on the other side of the coin; she is designed by Murphy and O'Keefe more for camp. Her clothes are brighter, her hair is shinier than everyone else’s, she has the most fun with her mean commentary, her berating diatribe and tongue lashing revilements. She’s the least human character – more an annoying caricature – but her coldness is a scream (“Candy Store”). It’s a perfect role for Ms. Belanger, whose clarion tone is malleable and rings so delightful with menace here.
Directed by Joe Lauderdale and Ella Wyatt, an ultimate directorial match, and featuring a buoyant, animated cast, this “Heathers” isn’t quite as mordant as the film that inspired it. I mean, after all, that was a movie.
But in scaling up the musical’s grotesqueness — which is inevitable when you set dark material to bubbly music — the popular production puts a guilt-quelling distance between its onstage mayhem and its audience.
For its first half, “Heathers” is skillful fun, as it arranges the cool kids for vivisection with dopey blue jokes and prancing choreography. In the second act, the show turns a bit more serious, seemingly apologizing for any untoward pleasure it may have afforded us before, as it ricochets between the antic and the conciliatory. Not that the audience seemed to mind. Every face was transfixed, caught up in the story.
Also of note in the exceptional cast is Jenn Quader, who plays the hilarious ex-hippie Ms. Flemming (“That did not work out well for me,” she admits of the free love movement), as she tries to work through the children’s pain amid the burden of suicide, as well as playing Veronica’s Mom. Hers is a rare kind of character work, and a disarming stage presence. Eric Anderson handles the multiple roles of Ram’s Dad, Big Bud Dean and Coach Ripper. Charlie McClung portrays Kurt’s Dad, Veronica’s Dad and Principal Gowan. Their sexually-charged duet at their kids’ double funeral had everyone rolling in the aisles (“My Dead Gay Son”).
In addition, Rylee Bullington plays the New Wave Girl, Doreen Nguyen is the Stoner Chick, Malin Glade is the Republican Girl, Cisco Morales plays the Geek, Mateo Yepiz is the Preppy and Isaac Yescas portrays the Hipster. All are exceptional ensemble dancers. The fabulous onstage Band consists of Conductor/Music Director Joe Mulroy on Piano, Lou Savage on Bass, Mark Sproull on Guitar and David Page on Drums. Director of Vocal Music is Roxanna Ward.
Set Designer Tim Mueller produced an effective minimal set; Props are by Chris Huntley, and Sound is supervised by Danny Rios. Lighting Design is by Blake Huntley and the show is Stage Managed also by Chris Huntley (who, incidentally, also is Fight Choreographer). Ellen Prince’s cool, thrilling choreography keeps you on the edge of your seat with excellent movement and skill.
For a musical that normally comes with an identity crisis and just a little too much bombast, this slick, entertaining production of “Heathers, the Musical” is wildly enjoyable and obviously bursting with future musical theatre stars. In fact it’s almost like a rock concert with its brisk, intelligent, unchallenged staging. Indeed, it’s quite irresistible.
Unfortunately, tickets are going fast so get your tickets while you can. There are only two more days left. For information regarding this weekend’s performance schedule, please inquire at: http://www.nosquare.org/ Don’t miss this pulse-racing show if you can help it. Very Highly Recommended!
The Show Report