Heathers: The Musical
This shiny new musical about teen suicide is kinder and gentler than its source material.
"Lick it up, baby. Lick it up," one popular girl says to another after vomiting at her feet in Heathers: The Musical. Now making its New York City debut at New World Stages, this brand-new show is based on the 1988 Daniel Waters film of the same name. The film Heathers is like the jaded older sister of Mean Girls. A demented postcard from Generation X, Heathers is a darker-than-dark comedy about school shootings and teen suicide that would almost certainly not be produced as a film today.
Heathers: The Musical is a collaboration of Laurence O'Keefe (Bat Boy: The Musical) and Kevin Murphy (Reefer Madness). Director Andy Fickman also helmed Reefer Madness, the musical satire of the 1936 propaganda film about the dangers of marijuana. One might expect a meeting of these awesome satirical minds to push the limits of outrageousness with a story like Heathers. While witty lyrics and fist-pumping pop anthems abound, the edginess here never rises above that of the original film. In fact, it often pales in comparison.
Heathers: The Musical is the story of Veronica Sawyer (Barrett Wilbert Weed), a 17-year-old student at Ohio's Westerburg High School. Because of Veronica's extraordinary ability to forge handwriting, she is drafted into The Heathers, the most powerful clique at Westerburg. There's ditzy head cheerleader Heather McNamara (Elle McLemore), bulimic Heather Duke (Alice Lee), and ruthless dictator Heather Chandler (a perfectly cast Jessica Keenan Wynn). These girls rule the school, but Veronica becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her newfound popularity when she sees The Heathers target her old friend Martha Dunnstock (Katie Ladner), or, as they call her, "Martha Dumptruck."
Meanwhile, the arrival of a trench-coat-wearing new kid named Jason "J.D." Dean (Ryan McCartan) threatens to upend the social order. He goads Veronica into killing several of her popular classmates while disguising the murders as suicides. As a result, these dead high school tyrants become more popular than ever and suicide becomes a bigger fad than Swatch watches.
Like I said, it's dark. Murphy and O'Keefe have shed light on some of the more inscrutable corners of the original film: With the help of a sympathetic performance by Ladner, Martha is no longer just a silently suffering heavyweight, but a spunky go-getter pining for her kindergarten-boyfriend-turned-jock-tormenter. The dead get to stick around and observe their martyrdom from the underworld, leading to some very funny, revealing moments. We even get to better understand idiot football players Ram Sweeney (Jon Eidson) and Kurt Kelly (Evan Todd) with their hilarious song "Blue," about a distinctly male affliction.
But in smoothing over the story's rough patches, the creative team also blunts some of its edge. Rather than pulling a handgun on Kurt and Ram in the cafeteria as he does in the film, J.D. bests them in a slow-motion fistfight. Would a gun-toting bad boy would be less endearing in the age of school shootings? Regardless, the musicalized J.D. has none of the gallows humor and gentlemanly charm of the film portrayal by Christian Slater, rendering him merely psychotic.
Weed exacerbates Veronica's ambivalence about her murderous new boyfriend in a well-acted performance. Unfortunately, her singing is a little pitchy. Michelle Duffy, on the other hand, delivers a pitch-perfect performance in the dual roles of Ms. Fleming, the hippie teacher looking to exploit the rash of teen suicides as a learning experience, and Veronica's pâté-munching mom. Her second-act song, "Shine a Light", is a surprise high point of the show.
It comes shortly after the attention-grabbing "My Dead Gay Son," which is taken from one of the film's more infamous lines. This funereal production number has the fathers of the deceased Ram and Kurt tossing away their homophobia and embracing their sons' gayness with manic enthusiasm. The lyrics (with references to Judy Garland and the Village People) are stale, and the music descends into a predictable gospel jamboree. I'm sad to say that the funniest thing about this disappointing song is its title. It's just trying too hard.
Similarly, a lot of the design looks like a Buzzfeed article about the '80s. Timothy R. Mackabee's multilevel neon-colored stage could moonlight as the set for the 1988 season of American Bandstand. Costume designer Amy Clark puts Martha in a rainbow unicorn sweatshirt that practically screams, "HEY, REMEMBER LISA FRANK?!?!" Yet lurking under this thin veneer of false nostalgia is the year 2014, with its post-Columbine political correctness. The knee-high socks and big shoulders serve to pad us from the sharp prescience of Heathers, the themes of which are sadly all too real today. Also, it's hard to believe high school football jocks in Ohio would be caught dead wearing American Apparel briefs in 2014, much less 1989.
None of this is to say that you won't laugh your head off throughout much of Heathers: The Musical. You will, but it won't be for the same hand-covering-mouth reasons you did for the film. These musical mean girls are warm and cuddly by comparison.