Kids can be cruel. Twisted, manipulative, and ferocious, they sense weakness in a person, and attack, usually as a pack, destroying their victims beyond repair. Which is probably why I’ve had an intense fear of teenagers since I was one, and why I relished the thought of catching “Heathers The Musical” this past Saturday at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center.
. . .quirky, campy fun with a sinister twist. . .
The cult classic film “Heathers” showcased the cruelty of kids, but an added twist: one of the popular crowd, attempting to free herself from social constraints, teams up with the new school bad boy to seek revenge on the worst offenders. “Heathers The Musical,” written by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, brings that film to the stage with the help of catchy lyrics and some jazzy dance moves.
A suburban high school, just like any other suburban high school across the nation, Westerburg High in the fall of 1989 is led by a select group of beautiful people; the jocks, Ram and Kurt, and the Heathers, Heather Duke, Heather McNamara, and the leader of the pack, Heather Chandler. Nerdy Veronica Sawyer, tired of suffering the bullying of Ram and Kurt, makes a bid to join the Heathers, after saving them from detention by forging a hall pass. Heather Chandler sees some potential in her, and, after giving her a makeover, the girls adopt her as one of their own, and Veronica is suddenly skyrocketed to the top of the social hierarchy.
Veronica slowly begins to tire of the in-crowd and their vicious tactics, however, and quickly falls for the mysterious, Baudelaire-quoting Jason “J.D.” Dean. In one of the most successful numbers of the night, “Fight for Me,” J.D., attacked by Ram and Kurt, fights back, beating up the football stars in slow motion choreography as Veronica weaves her way in and out of the action, expressing her slightly perverse enjoyment of the cafeteria brawl, and asking J.D. if he would be willing to fight for her.
At a homecoming party soon after, Veronica foils a plan by the Heathers to humiliate her former best friend, Martha Dunstock, and resigns from the group. A furious Heather Chandler threatens to ruin her social life completely, and Veronica, drunk and knowing her life as she knows it will soon be over, runs to J.D., sneaking in his bedroom window for a night of passion, in “Dead Girl Walking.” The next day, regretting her rashness the previous night, Veronica decides to beg Heather Chandler’s forgiveness, and J.D. accompanies her to Heather’s house. There, Veronica fixes Heather a hangover remedy, while J.D. pours a mug of Drano, suggesting that is what Heather deserves instead. Veronica laughs him off, but accidentally ends up taking the mug of Drano to Heather, Heather dies, and at the insistence of J.D., Veronica uses her forgery skills to write a suicide note. Things quickly spiral out of control after that, as the death toll rises, and Veronica realizes just how unstable J.D. is.
In the transformation from film to stage, O’Keefe and Murphy, attempt to give more backstory to the characters. In the beginning of the film, Veronica is already a well-established member of the popular group, but in the musical, we see her rise to the top, and her discomfort with it.
Martha Marie Wasser as Veronica is endearingly self-deprecating. Her body language and facial expressions express that teenage struggle between wanting to do the right thing and yearning to fit in. She’s cool in a dorky sort of way, the girl everyone not in the cool crowd wants to befriend.
The musical also tries to give the audience more of a sense of J.D.’s motivation and the pain and loneliness that have driven him to kill. Songs like “Freeze Your Brain,” in which J.D. describes his attempts to numb the pain of his mother’s death and his constant moves from high school to high school, retain a bit of humor (he is singing about Slurpees after all), but make an effort to create depth of character that wasn’t present in the movie. This didn’t really work for me. Something about seeing J.D. painfully lament his lot in life takes away from his ability to inspire fear by making him less cold and calculating. I did, however, enjoy Michael Roman in the role. He has an excellent voice and definitely has the intense, psychopath stare down pat.
Despite my misgivings about the change in tone of the musical version of “Heathers,” I think director Edward R. Fernandez and the rest of the cast and crew excelled at bringing the complicated maze of friendships, rivalries and vendettas of high school to the stage of the Ephrata Performing Arts Center at the Sharadin Bigler Theatre. If you are offended by strong language or easily startled by loud noises, you may want to pass on this one, but if you can appreciate a bit of quirky, campy fun with a sinister twist, “Heathers The Musical” may be just the thing for you.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission.
Advisory: Adult themes and language.
“Heathers The Musical” plays through November 5, 2016 at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center at the Sharadin Bigler Theatre in Ephrata, PA. For more information, click here.