HEATHERS THE MUSICAL

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _THE ALEXANDRA.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _20th MAY.

May 16, 2023

images © Pamela Raith.

On the morning of the performance reviewed, national treasure, actress Kathy Burke, proudly tweeted how her recent comments on how she loves being ‘woke’ (because, she states, “it’s better than being an ignorant b*stard”) have been slapped onto t-shirts. Elsewhere on the vestiges of what was once Twitter, droves took to ridiculing and despairing (in fairly equal measure) the game of bigot bingo that seemed to be pouring out of the populist-right ‘National Conservatism’ conference in London. And all mere days after a certain ex-President got served a slice of what some would deem long-overdue humble pie, with a US court finding him guilty of sexual abuse.

You’ll forgive the laden and socio-politically charged opener, but it seems that wherever you glance, there’s a lot of people taking particular relish in socking it to the truly horrible.

It’s isn’t exactly a new trend, either, and indeed entertainment has offered up plenty of retributive thrills over the years, be it on the page, screen or stage. From the family-friendly hijinks of, say, Home Alone or Matilda, right through to the decidedly more macabre and sanguine offerings of Sweeney Todd or Kill Bill, there’s empowerment and vicarious badassery in witnessing some just desserts being doled out to deserving targets.

Which leads neatly to the 1989 cinematic release of Heathers, and now, of all things, its late-2000’s musical adaptation.

Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters’ darkly subversive coming-of-age comedy often gets unfairly lumped in today with conversations surrounding the likes of Tina Fey’s (far more pedestrian and formulaic) Mean Girls, or reduced to passing references in the likes of, say, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Plenty can process the titular reference as being one of cliquey high-school bitchiness, but that on its own is reductive to the point of almost insulting; the original Heathers is a twisted treat purely because of how far beyond the typical playground cattiness and antics that it takes its biting, dangerous narrative.

It’s what makes the idea of Heathers as a musical such a potentially disastrous misfire. In a story that deals with, amongst other heady issues, the likes of teen suicide, homophobia, bullying, murder and even terrorism amidst all other manner of blunt bleakness, the idea of it being set to some peppy tunes from the team behind Legally Blonde the Musical surely sets off some warning bells?

In actuality, writers Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy (said Blonde-smiths) pull a blinder here, not only transmogrifying the film into a purposeful and somehow relentlessly entertaining and funny stage romp, but actually taking things one step further in understanding and utilising the very format and tropes of the stage musical to amplify the rug-pulling, twisty-turny, frank and shocking story at the very dark, beating heart of Heathers.

Do WHAT with a chainsaw?..: Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters’ dark, submersive, original Heathers film (pictured above, © New World Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection) has since become widely regarded as omongst the greatest coming-of-age releases of all time. Whilst it was not their film debuts, it marked two of the earliest film performances of Winona Ryder (pictured) and Christian Slater, whilst Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk and Shannen Doherty depicted the powerful, vindictive titular clique.

Case in point – the show’s opening numbers. We get the bitchy, school-ruling clique, the air-headed jocks, the plucky heroine, and the mysterious new boy who may or may not have caught the eye of our lead, who herself seems ready to make a pact with the titular trio of devils in an ‘anything for a quiet life’ sort of gambit. You’ve seen the story before, in a million ways, and could practically signpost the direction it’s likely headed – girl loses herself and her true friends in the pursuit of popularity, yet ends up coming full circle, falling in love with the goofy oddball, and finding strength in her own individuality.

And yet, Heathers is decidedly not interested in taking you down that road. Sure, O’Keefe and Murphy do a superb job of wrong-footing you early on, in a sumptuously cunning first Act that quite literally plays all the right notes in taking those unfamiliar with the story along for the ride on where they think it’s all headed. The earnest ice-breaker (pun intended) of our lead, Veronica (Jenna Innes) crooning with trenchcoat-wearing loner, ‘J.D.’ (Jacob Fowler) at a Seven Eleven during ‘Freeze Your Brain’. The snappy, overt nastiness of ‘Candy Store’, as Heathers Chandler, Duke and McNamara really put a stamp on their bitchy rule. We even get the obligatory parents-are-away, ensemble party rompery of ‘Big Fun’.

“…remarkably, you can be in a position of going from complete shock and disgust to side-splitting laughter – sometimes in the space of seconds – without suffering any sort of tonal whiplash.”

But then, the worm begins to turn.

To go into detail on the subversions and about-turns that Heathers takes, particularly for those coming at the IP with fresh, unspoiled eyes, would risk ruining so much of the fun… and what unabashedly confident, bleak, brilliant fun it is.

It’s difficult not to be slightly taken aback by it all. Owing to the complete confidence and quality of the writing and performances, here is a show where, remarkably, you can be in a position of going from complete shock and disgust to side-splitting laughter – sometimes in the space of seconds – without suffering any sort of tonal whiplash. This is a show that is able to subdue you into laughing about a teenager’s mealy-mouthed suicide attempt, and as gauche and brazen as that may sound (and may indeed be), it’s a testament to how brilliantly-written, tightly-realised and winningly performed this touring production in particular is.

Do WHAT with a chainsaw?..: Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters’ dark, submersive, original Heathers film (pictured above, © New World Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection) has since become widely regarded as omongst the greatest coming-of-age releases of all time. Whilst it was not their film debuts, it marked two of the earliest film performances of Winona Ryder (pictured) and Christian Slater, whilst Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk and Shannen Doherty depicted the powerful, vindictive titular clique.

Enormous credit has to go to the cast. Jenna Innes steers the ship with masterful gusto, with a rounded, dynamic Veronica with whom we go on the full gamut of emotion. She inherits some big asks, too, pulling off some extraordinary belts and tough sings whilst never relinquishing character, nor the show’s overall sense of touching-distance irony. It’s a bravura turn that establishes her as a real talent to watch. Jacob Fowler, meanwhile, is equally impressive as the object of her affections. Navigating arguably an even more shifting and complex figure, his soulful vocals match an idiosyncratic turn that bandies between being adorable to at-times downright terrifying.

Kingsley Morton, recently quite wonderful as Wednesday in the The Addams Family, rekindles her sparkle in the supporting role of Veronica’s long-time bestie, Martha. Morton rends hearts in a crushing, beautifully delivered Act II solo, and proves herself another one absolute made for the stage. Alex Woodward and Morgan Jackson, meanwhile, gobble up scenes aplenty as the pair of groin-thrusting, empty-headed try-hard jocks who, again, somehow manage to convincingly lampoon their way around some fairly sinister material without ever threatening a disconnect. Conor McFarlane, Jay Bryce and Katie Paine all keep things colourful with some fun bit parts, whilst a punchy ensemble and swing do terrific work keeping the energy levels high throughout.

But there’s no discussing Heathers without appraising, well… you know who. For the performance reviewed, understudies Summer Priest and Eliza Bowden stepped in for the roles of ‘vice’ Heathers, Duke and McNamara respectively. Whilst Duke is perhaps the most underserved of the book, Priest did a suitably sultry and sassy job, whilst Bowden shone during the show’s second half, where her character gets a little more by way of development and chance to shine.

Yet ruling the roost, with godly stage presence, fantastic vocals, and razor-sharp characterisation par excellence is the superlative Verity Thompson as head bitch in charge, Heather Chandler. From the outset, Thompson commands, demands and effortlessly captures attention; a truly megawatt turn that shines even amongst an exceptional company and ensemble about her. Sure, the book gives her Heather Chandler the most to do out of the show’s antagonists, but even when she’s relegated to observing from the sidelines, theatrical magic courses through the very fibre of Thompson’s wonderful turn.

“…theatrical magic courses through the very fibre of Thompson’s wonderful turn.”

Those already familiar with Heathers by way of the film will find that, outside of some minor changes and tonal adjustments here and there, the musical is surprisingly faithful. Key moments, such as its climactic, emotional showdown, gets some new wrinkles and emotional beats, but overall what’s most impressive here is how well it all works as a piece of musical theatre. There’s admirably very little shying away from its nastiness and raw subject matter. Sure, the score lands far closer to early-mid 2000s than anything remotely 80s-sounding, but that’s no dealbreaker; O’Keefe and Murphy once again pepper the soundtrack with plenty of earworms and character nuggets. There are one or two places where it slightly flounders – such as a televised appeal that lands a little too tamely – and some may balk at the slightly sugar-coated denouement, but otherwise it mostly retains its fangs and bite, with punchy direction and choreography throughout from Andy Fickman and Gary Lloyd.

There will doubtless be some for whom the sobering topics that Heathers features or pivots around may register a touch too close to home. It may even lead to some disconnect or, for some, perhaps even a sense that it’s all in somewhat poor taste.

Had its execution, its writing, its performances and its moulding of the unique strengths and opportunities of the musical all not been so uniformly well-handled, I’d probably be inclined to agree. But, in this day and age where attitudes are championed for being simplistic and binary, where so many new productions and stories follow a roadmap to formula with little by way of invention or daring, how ironic it is that we have to go over three decades into the past to land on something which makes for one of the freshest, most original and welcomely complicated musical storytelling offerings in recent memory.

‘The extreme always seems to make an impression’, Christian Slater opines in the original 1989 release. It seems, on balance, as good a mission statement or appraisal as any for the daring, deliciously twisted and disarmingly complicated nasty and nice musical adaptation that would come to follow.

Sizzingly performed, bitingly atypical and as deliciously dark and twisted as it ought be. Innes, Fowler, Thompson and Morton all dazzle in one of the most devilishly entertaining slices of musical black comedy about. How very, indeed…

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