Perhaps one of the most indulgently delightful moments in cinema in the 80s takes place during a gleefully macabre funeral for two high school jocks in the 1988 cult classic The Heathers. Blustering and profoundly machismo-fueled, the father of one of the deceased boys begins to address the mourners, but rather than denounce his son who allegedly died in a joint suicide with his teammate and lover because of the pressures of keeping their homosexuality clandestine, the father proclaims “I LOVE MY DEAD, GAY SON.” It is a surreally triumphant and joyous moment, underscoring the absurdities that were inherent and rampant in the 80s, and it is a moment that I could not believe could be adequately replicated or recreated in an adaptation of the film. The recent production of Heathers: The Musical presented by Comtra Theatre ostentatiously proved me wrong.
As Chris Strangfeld, the director of Heathers: The Musical, notes in his comments in the program for the production, “…whether we choose to accept it or not, we all have moments of filthiness.” This was the sort of visceral revealing of “true selves” that made the original film so simultaneously repulsive and enrapturing—it was an absurdist look at the depressive, cruel and violent behaviors of teenagers that made them intensely similar yet left them feeling profoundly alienated from one another. Translating Heathers into a musical format allows for the cruelties and the ludicrous banalities of the lives (and deaths) of the students of Westerburg High to be intensified in an outrageously campy way. The nearly flawless execution of the Heathers: The Musical—which is so prosperous in part because of its incredibly tight direction and perfectly-timed pacing that bypasses much of the superfluous over-exposition that plagues many musicals (especially movie-to-musical adaptations)—accentuates these absurdities with pitch-perfect robustness.
The story of Heathers is, without spoiling too much, one of teenage awkwardness, ruthlessness and vengeance that is both distinctly 80s and profoundly universal. A quintessentially edgy-but-awkward girl Veronica (Victoria Buchtan) inadvertently finds herself inextricably intertwined in a venomous group of elite popular girls, all named Heather. At the same time, Veronica becomes romantically attached to the nomadic, unreasonably brooding JD (Cody Larko), who involves Veronica in a world of violence and depravity as a way of contending with the amorality of the Heathers and the other debauched popular elite. On a performance level, this recent production of Heathers is nearly unrivaled in terms of the outstanding vocal and musical capabilities of the cast members individually and as an ensemble. The three marvelously bitchy (there’s another word that is more apropos, but far less printable) Heathers, played by Katelynn Reist (HBIC Heather Chandler), Morgan Engle (somewhat “softer” hearted Heather McNamara) and Annie Batista (vying for prestige Heather Duke), are all complementarily superb, their individual ranges and performance styles blending brilliantly to amplify one another and make each woman stand out (without outshining). A special nod should be given to Reist, whose sumptuously droll performance, whether in song or in standard dialogue, gave new life to the ringleader originally played by notoriously scathing Shannen Doherty in such a way that it has left a remarkable impression.
Unreasonably dashing Cody Larko captures the n’er-do-well essence that is inherent to JD, making sinister plots and borderline sociopathic acts of brutal violence compellingly sexy (at first). Victoria Buchtan deserves ample applause not only for her dynamite voice (foreshadowing pun mildly intended), but subtly imbuing Veronica with the hints of compassion and decency that allows her to be a moral compass (if not a faulty one) throughout the musical. Moreover, the ensemble as a whole and each cast member, regardless of the size of the role, functions seamlessly in such a way that transforms and electrifies the entire viewing experience.
There are, of course, some problematic areas in Heathers that indicate the era in which the source material was initially produced as well as the fraught era in which we now exist. The aggressive and meticulous brutality JD, a seemingly “disenfranchised” kid—a kid who is from a decent socioeconomic situation, has the potential for social and societal mobility, and, importantly, is a white male—feels entitled against and distraught because of slights and injustices that only a privileged white male would find distressing, and enacts horrific acts of violence when he feels slighted. Though he acts based on what is meant to be construed as warped chivalry (though, truly, any act of chivalry is based on a warped perception of the world), and though he acts to defend Veronica from the lecherous jocks and villainous Heathers, JD is clearly a character of white male privilege run amok that will take anything down with him that he can. This was certainly a far more easily digestible character and plot premise in the 80s, but watching the story in the present day, the characters, particularly JD, and the plot come across as a bit more alarmingly disquieting giving heinous acts of white-male violence that have become appallingly commonplace. That being said, source material is not the responsibility of the company producing the show, and Heathers is an outrageously fun and sensationally acted musical worth making the trek to Cranberry to see.
Heathers the Musical runs at Comtra Theatre through May 19. For tickets and more information click here.
Categories: Archived Reviews