Tuesday, July 15, 2014

No Damage Here; Heathers the Musical is *Very* Very

Review: Heathers the Musical

The original Off-Broadway cast of Heathers.

For reasons I can't quite fathom, the pitch black 1988 comedy Heathers has gained quite the cult following in the 25 years since its initial release.  The movie is a bizarre tonal cocktail of absurdist humor, exceedingly dark satire, and overwrought drama that becomes borderline unwatchable in spots.  I certainly wouldn't have chosen it as a property ripe for musicalization, but I am exceedingly happy Kevin Murphy and Laurence O'Keefe felt otherwise, as they have crafted an engagingly campy musical confection that manages to improve upon the source material in almost every way.

Westerberg High School is ruled by an all-powerful clique of popular girls, all named Heather.  The deliciously vicious Heathers have the power to make anyone and anything cool, and brainy outcast Veronica Sawyer manages to convince the Heathers to take her under their wing (thanks mostly to her masterful forgery skills).  When the mysterious, trenchcoat-clad J.D. arrives on the scene and begins dating the instantly smitten Veronica, he decides the Heathers are in need of some major social justice.  Soon J.D. has turned Veronica into an accomplice to murder, and it eventually falls on her to find a way to stop her homicidal boyfriend from enacting deadly social change on the entire school.

One of the film's major flaws is its unfocused, inconsistent tone, but Murphy and O'Keefe's book and score (the pair share equal billing on all aspects of the show) finds the perfect blend of campy, self-aware comedy and earnestness that allows you to laugh at the characters yet still empathizing with them during the narrative's darker portions.  Unlike their movie counterparts, the characters in the stage Heathers all have consistent, clear motivations, although even Murphy and O'Keefe can't quite figure out a compelling reason for Veronica to stay with J.D. so long after he reveals his true intentions.  The musical's script also has a clearer sense of escalating action, and the writers have expertly inserted the musical numbers among the book scenes.

And what fun musical numbers they are.  Between the two of them, Murphy and O'Keefe have been involved in some of the more inventive pop-influenced scores of the new millennium, including Reefer Madness, Bat Boy, and the Tony-nominated (yet underappreciated) Legally Blonde.  They are both in fine form here, whether it's in catchy numbers like the belty, bubblegum pop "Candy Store" or more earnest ballads like "Kindergarten Boyfriend."  Musically the songs are melodic while retaining an element of surprise, with vocal pyrotechnics that skirt the fine line between being impressive and obnoxious.  The harmonies and vocal writing are especially lovely, and the many duos and trios throughout the score give the show a nice, layered sound which helps offset the bombast of the group numbers.  Lyrically the show is also quite clever, and provides the denizens of Westerberg High with a unique vernacular that, to borrow a phrase from the titular clique, is "so very."

The young, unknown cast of Heathers is filled to the brim with talent, and they tackle the material with gutso and aplomb.  Understudy Cait Fairbanks went on in the role of Veronica the night I attended, and the young actress deftly navigated the role's vocal and emotional challenges.  Her Veronica is charmingly understated, a multifaceted creation who is believably taken in by the Heathers and J.D. without seeming stupid or losing her inherent likability.  Dave Thomas Brown is rakishly charming as J.D., with a strong tenor and an emotional accessibility that helps you understand what caused this teenage boy to think murder is the best way to deal with bullies.

As the titular Heathers, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Elle McLemore, and Kristolyn Lloyd are close to perfection, gleefully embracing their mean girl personas and mining their stage time for all it's worth.  Wynn, with her stunning good looks and beautifully mature voice, is a "mythic bitch" as the group's leader Heather Chandler, with her aloof line delivery and utter disdain for everyone making her the kind of character you love to hate.  Lloyd is a scene stealer as Heather Duke, the green-pinstriped number 2 and Wynn's constant punching bag.  McLemore makes the smallest impression as Heather McNamara, but provides solid support throughout and has a hysterical pill-popping scene with Veronica in the second act.  The trio's brilliance lies in their ability to work seamlessly as a unit (their harmonies are particularly nice) while maintaining their own individuality.  The actresses have three distinct personalities, so while you may not be able to keep the Heathers' surnames straight there is never any doubt about which Heather is which.

Director Andy Fickman stages the show with a workmanlike quality that keeps things moving and makes the plot-heavy narrative a breeze to follow, although he's done no staging favors by Timothy R. Mackabee's shallow, candy-colored set.  Amy Clarks' fantastically fun costumes invoke the 80s while avoiding that decades' more questionable fashion statements, making everyone in the cast both stylish and instant indentifiable.  Jason Lyons' lighting design adds to the brightly colored fantasia, and while Marguerite Derricks' energetic choreography doesn't quite mesh with the staging it is certainly fun to look at.

It's easy to roll your eyes at the ever-increasing number of musicals based on movies, but when the results are as giddily entertaining as Heathers the Musical it's hard to complain too loudly.  Although slightly overlong and a tad too reliant on ballads, Murphy and O'Keefe's script and score improves on the source material in almost every conceivable way.  The young cast gamely tackles the material with an infectious joy, resulting in a show that is intelligent, entertaining, and above all fun.  Unfortunately the show has announce an early August closing date, so those wanting to hanging with the popular crowd should head over to New World Stages before the Heathers saunter away forever.

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