Heather Chandler: “…God, Veronica. My afterlife is so boring. If I have to sing Kumbaya one more time.”
“Heathers The Musical,” the Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy rock musical, which ran off-Broadway for a few months in 2014, is like the love child of “Grease” and “Sweeney Todd” — a delirious, tone-shifting roller coaster that accelerates from peppy and vulgar high school hijinks, to murder and suicide. But this high-energy production, directed expertly by James R. Taulli, is also a carnival of delights. It’s curious how anarchy and mayhem works so well as a musical. The show is in its second weekend at Cal State Fullerton, playing April 19th through May 5th in the Young Theatre on campus.
Based on the late-80’s teen cult film by the same name, “Heathers…” is a high-energy black comedy—a show that opens conversations about dark issues, including bullying, teen suicide, sexual assault and violence in schools in one of the most scathing indictments of high-school groupthink ever made. It’s the darkly delicious story of Veronica Sawyer, a brainy, beautiful, teenage misfit entering her senior year, who hustles her way into the most powerful and ruthless clique at Westerberg High: The Heathers.
It seems Veronica’s superpower is her ability to imitate others’ handwriting (forging hall passes and the like), and when the Heathers discover that, they decide to make her over and let her join them in the rarefied upper echelon of school society. She dumps her tubby friend Martha, and starts taking orders from the three queen bees.
But before she can get comfortable atop the high school food chain, Veronica falls in love with the dangerously sexy new kid “J.D.,” a Baudelaire-quoting bad boy new to the school whose troubled past and mannered indifference makes him irresistible to her, though in these post-Columbine times, a trench coat-wearing high school antihero seems a bit unsettling.
When Heather Chandler, the Almighty, kicks her out of the group, Veronica decides to bite the bullet and kiss Heather’s aerobicized derriere...but J.D. has another plan for that bullet. Before long, he has figured a way to get Veronica out of the Heathers’ control. Teenagers start dying, but J.D. uses Veronica’s writing skill to make the deaths look like suicide instead of murder:
Despite post-coital bliss, Veronica is angry at Heather after their falling out—Heather calls her “a Girl Scout cookie,” among other things—so Veronica remarks to JD that she wants her dead. The problem is that JD is an atypical misanthrope, so when they’re joking in the kitchen about how to get Heather to vomit from a hangover cure, JD playfully suggests a dose of drain cleaner, while pouring it into a glass. Veronica instead concocts a cocktail of orange juice and milk, but then grabs the wrong glass to give her, a mistake that JD does not bother to point out. The mixture kills Heather, and Veronica and JD, in a state of panic, fake a suicide note. All of a sudden, suicide becomes the latest high school fad.
O’Keefe and Murphy hew pretty faithfully to Daniel Waters’ original screenplay, featuring the poisonous Heathers trinity (Lauren Louis as ringleader Heather Chandler, Beth Roy as Heather McNamara and Carly McLaurin as Heather Duke). And their songs are glorious, ranging from the hilarious—“Candy Store,” “Big Fun” and “You’re Welcome,”—to the poignant, “The Me Inside of Me,” “Seventeen,” and “Dead Girl Walking.” The campy “My Dead Gay Son” is done in a rousing church revival style as the formerly homophobic fathers (Jack O’Leary and Gabriel Manley) of the two dead football players, Ram and Kurt, embrace the idea of their sons’ “secret,” as well as admitting to their own latent feelings for one another. Ram’s Dad also plays Big Bun Dean and Coach Ripper; Kurt’s Dad also plays Veronica’s Dad and Gowan.
The vocals are expressly terrific, starting with the amazingly versatile Amanda Neiman as Veronica. Ms. Neiman seems able to do absolutely anything with her voice. Her “Fight for Me” was exceptional! The gifted Ms. Louis is impressively melodic too, especially in “Veronica’s Chandler Nightmare.”
Also included in the first few scenes is the sexually charged 7-11 run-in between heroine Veronica and that charming, but deeply troubled rebel, J.D., in their first formal introduction to each other (“Freeze Your Brain”).
Anthony Vacio is a moody, seductive J.D. —who distinguishes himself from the ‘Christian Slater’ film portrayal with its ‘shades of Jack Nicholson’—and is charismatic even as he’s steadily unraveling, making Veronica’s push-pull relationship with him even more believable. Dillon Klena (“Children of Eden,” “Disney’s Newsies”) and Marlon Magtibay (“The Little Mermaid”) are priceless as the dimwitted jocks, Ram and Kurt, and comically inspire sympathy for their doltish megalomania—but should we really feel sorry for these bastions of male chauvinism? Mr. Klena and Mr. Magtibay perform their parts commendably, with hysterical caricature and lampoonery.
Yadira Del Rincon, as Veronica’s systematically bullied best friend, Martha, relegated to an ongoing class punch line, bears the brunt of the whole school’s vented anger with the nickname of “Dumptruck,” and is heartbreakingly lovely in her big solo number, “Kindergarten Boyfriend.”
The ensemble is filled with perfected voices and featured in about every scene, mesmerizing the audience with their well-trained choreography and synchronized movement. Mrs. Fleming and Veronica’s Mom are both played by Sarah Bloom, Matthew Ollson portrays multiple roles: the Blow-Dried Preppy, Officer McCord and the Cameraman. Jeff Garrido represents the Clean Cut Cheer Dude and Officer Milner. Riley Mawhorter is Bitter Geek, Steven Ruvalcaba is the Hipster Dork, and Jessica Pierini is Stoner Chick. Megan McCarthy is Young Republicanette, Brianna Clark is the New Wave Babe, Kaden Narey is Drama Club Boy, Gabrielle Adner plays Goth Girl, and Abigail Heilman is the Vintage Funky Girl.
A host of student production staff assistants were assigned to set, costume, props and hair/makeup technical departments for the show. The '80s sensibility is largely intact with references to croquet, pay phones, shoulder pads, eating disorders, breast implants and date rape.
Scenic Designer is Todd Faux and the set was minimal, employing a simple graphic set which contains fourteen LED screens attached to three walls in the thrush staging, serving as projection scenery. There was also occasional use of adaptable support pieces in the scenes. Sierra Sky Roberts-Lopez’ costumes are colorful and clever, and very stylish, big-shouldered, sequined and punked out. The colors, accessories used, and hair styles gave the impression you were viewing an 80’s high school teen movie. I saw glimpses of Jon Cryer in “Pretty in Pink,” and one ensemble dancer looked exactly like an actor in “Revenge of the Nerds.” If you squint, you may even see Robbie Benson in one of the male leads too.
Heathers has the courage to sympathize with a psychopath who exposes how dangerous it can be when fads and gossip are more influential than basic decency, and Jim Taulli’s Direction is flawless in this show! Cal State Fullerton Director Taulli has helmed over 200 productions and events for professional and university theatres across the country and internationally, and this show has to be one of his best.
Hair and Makeup Design is artfully performed by Nicolette Woodard. Clayton Fournival’s lighting is awash in saturated color. And Sound Design by Paisha Bleich and Adam Sack was phenomenal. Technical Direction is by Russell Mackensen and Bill Meyer, Fight Choreography is upskilled by Michael Polak. And, Courtney Ozovek’s Choreography is astonishingly wonderful! The entire cast is very expressive of character, and bowls over with perfection. The Musical Director is David Jayden Anthony, with Accompaniment by Jennifer Schniepp.
“Heathers The Musical” continues at 8pm on April 27th, May 2nd, 3rd, and 4th and at 2pm on April 27th, 28th, May 4th, and 5th. This show is Highly Recommended! General admission tickets are $24 ($22 with advance Titan Discount purchase for students, seniors or with a CSUF ID). Tickets are available by calling (657) 278-3371, 11am-5pm, Monday through Friday. Online tickets are at: https://sa1.seatadvisor.com/sabo/servlets/EventSearch?presenter=CLAYESPAC&tck=true
National Youth Arts