Off Strip Productions’ and Todd+Bryan’s presentation of “Heathers The Musical” at Onyx Theatre is, as the snooty-girl title characters might say, so “Very.” It’s a very good show and even though on opening night there were myriad technical problems, the mishaps didn’t hold back the live orchestra or the vivacious cast and they pulled off one heck of a high-spirited, comical blast from the past.
With book, music, and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, the 2010 stage play is based on the 1988 cult-classic film “Heathers,” written by Daniel Waters. A dark satire about the brainy Veronica Sawyer and the rebel Jason Dean (J.D.), misfit high school sweethearts who take revenge on bullying classmates the cliquey Heathers and the lecherous jocks by killing a few and staging their deaths as suicides, the movie was meant as a stinging antidote to the teenage fluff flicks of 1980’s directors like John Hughes.
Waters’ screenplay has turned out to be eerily insightful. His sociopathic, leading young man J.D. dons a duster and totes a gun through the halls of Westerberg High like a modern day outlaw, shameless opportunists sensationalize the supposed suicides, and voyeurs sadistically revel in the details like it’s reality t.v.
In adapting film to stage the theatrical creators watered down the macabre, nihilistic aspects of the story with a fairly exuberant score. Irony is retained in the lyrics but adolescent alienation and deadpan detachment, conveyed in the film through stylized performances and surreal aesthetics, doesn’t quite translate. A completely psychotic J.D., like the one Christian Slater iconically crafted for the movie, might hit too close to home for today’s audiences who are shell-shocked by years of school violence.
In a sense, the cheerful stage version of the story has become what the movie railed against, though it’s not sanitized. Just like in the ‘80’s there’s plenty of sex, pop-rock, and dancing at kegger parties.
Director Troy Heard has put together an excellent cast of seventeen, a sublime orchestra of seven, and numerous technicians. It’s a big show and an admirable undertaking for the diminutive venue, with the musicians located in a separate room stage left. But on opening night, the sound mixing was a bit mixed up. Microphones were off when they should have been on and vice versa. There was background noise and unfortunate feedback. Video projections didn’t function properly, and some set pieces were problematic.
But the performers were ready for an audience. While some principals had problems with pitch, the entire company as a chorus was beautifully harmonious. Music Director/Conductor/Keyboardist Halsey Harkins along with her band blended nicely in bringing to life the dynamic, synth-pop vibe and also sustained a smooth pace.
Brenna Folger as Veronica is the heart of the show in the part famously created by Winona Ryder on the screen. Folger makes the reluctant member of the Heathers her own by sharpening Veronica’s wise, wicked dry wit and deepening an inner turmoil at having fallen for and been duped by her wacko boyfriend. On her furrowed brow she shows us an interior battle with a guilty conscience.
She and Maverick Hiu as J.D. have a nice chemistry together and a lovely duet with “Seventeen,” but he’s more puppy-dog cute than smoldering, sensual seducer. He snaps powerfully into psycho mode in the second act with his rock anthem “Meant to be Yours,” but his performance would carry more force if he built an ominous edge from the start.
Kady Heard, Amanda Kraft, and Lynnae Meyers as the popular yet dreaded Heathers have the perfectly haughty head tosses and snobby sneers down pat. Their “Candy Store” is a fun, sassy girl doo-wop, one of many numbers cleverly choreographed by Heard, and Meyers quietly sings a touching and pretty ballad called “Lifeboat.”
As the perpetually picked on Martha Dunnstock, Taylor Ann Powers brings out the tormented geek in all of us with her tearjerker performance of “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” arguably the best sung solo of the show. Jamar Thompson is Kurt and Jonathan Anders is Ram, the frisky football players who terrorize the nerds and make a hilarious, dancing duo in their party anthem “Big Fun.” And as the jocks’ goofy dads, Joe Hynes and Timothy Cummings are a funny couple with their duet “My Dead Gay Son.”
Todd+Bryan’s set design of a white cinderblock school cafeteria and gym is the canvas for their technicolor lights with a palette that allows for changes in location and mood. Cari Byers’ costumes cover the red, green, yellow, and blue plaids of the Heathers’ schoolgirl outfits and also an array of looks appropriate to the period. And the kinks in Don Parnall’s sound levels will hopefully even out.
Are you a Heather or a Veronica? Check out the show to find out.