Heathers: The Musical: Theater Review

Heathers: The Musical - H 2014
Chad Batka

Heathers: The Musical - H 2014

So it's not great art? What's your damage?

The era-defining black comedy, in which Winona Ryder and Christian Slater took down a totalitarian high school clique, gets bubblegum song-and-dance treatment Off Broadway.

NEW YORK – In Michael Lehmann's delectable 1988 teen cult classic, Heathers, the feared-and-revered school alpha bitches and the bullying jocks become emblems of a society of rottenness and inequality, where those in power are begging to be brought to their knees. Does the acidic comedy gain anything from being turned into a cartoonish pop musical? Hell, no. But as an extension of the movie's wicked pleasures, this version has its silly charms, as demonstrated by the rowdy response of the predominantly young audience. It's not exactly very -- to borrow from Heather-speak -- but for insatiable fans it might almost be enough, and the tacky high school-style staging seems somehow appropriate.

The musical's official opening date is 25 years to the day since the film's release, making the source material about as old as much of the crowd at a recent weekend press performance. That convergence indicates its enduring popularity as a cable and DVD discovery for kids, ranking alongside other choice satires of hierarchical teen culture that came later, like Clueless and Mean Girls.

Laurence O'Keefe, who co-wrote the score for the Legally Blonde stage musical, teams with Kevin Murphy (Reefer Madness) on this adaptation, which recycles many of the more memorable lines from Daniel Waters' screenplay.

Anyone fearing a sanitized version can stop fretting. The ice queen of Ohio's Westerburg High, Heather Chandler -- played as an irresistibly evil Barbie by Jessica Keenan Wynn -- still conveys her impatience by demanding to be gently pleasured with a chainsaw, in less polite terms. Minor departures from the original bring mixed dividends and sluggish patches; more willingness to go dark rather than keep winking at the audience would have been welcome. But even Andy Fickman's inert direction, which gets especially sloppy during the climactic mayhem, isn't a total deal breaker.

Barrett Wilbert Weed (a spectacular name that sounds like something out of The Wind in the Willows) steps with appealing spunkiness into the Winona Ryder role of Veronica Sawyer. Unlike the movie, which began with jaded Veronica already recruited into the merciless Heathers regime, the show opens with her on the outside, dreaming of an alternate universe where everyone is kind and beautiful. In this version we experience her momentary intoxication as she gets a first taste of social supremacy.

And who wouldn't want to be a Heather, at least for a minute? They enter feted like school royalty, sharing not only the same name, but also a coordinated wardrobe of kicky plaid micro-skirts, loud, shoulder-padded blazers and knee socks. (Amy Clark did the cute costumes.) But only Heather C. gets to wear the red velvet scrunchie that denotes her reign. Heather McNamara (Elle McLemore) is the dim lady-in-waiting, while Heather Duke (Alice Lee, overdoing it) is the resentful underling, eager to usurp the throne. (That role onscreen helped cement Shannen Doherty's bad-girl persona.)

The cruelty of the Heathers and the school's dumb, drooling star footballers, Kurt (Evan Todd) and Ram (Jon Eidson), soon proves too much for Veronica to stomach. She finds a love interest and problem solver in J.D. (Ryan McCartan), the black trench coat-clad transfer student who believes it's time for a new world order. He manipulates Veronica into helping commit murders disguised as tragic teen suicides. It's a blissful irony that the proudly soulless Heather C. becomes an unlikely martyr for shattered youth, as she looks on in amusement, supplying acerbic commentary from the afterlife.

While the cast is generally adequate, McCartan lacks spark; he's a poor substitute for Christian Slater's sexy sociopath in the movie, with his sleepy Jack Nicholson-esque delivery. But the subversive plot machinations retain enough juice to override the weaknesses of any particular performance or of the stop-start storytelling. The creative team earns some credit for not completely neutering the material with post-Columbine sensitivity, even if they have softened the tone by straining for laughs.

Murphy's and O'Keefe's songs are often funny, but hit-and-miss overall, under-exploiting the opportunity to channel any distinctive '80s sound. The opener, "Beautiful," would be a solid intro if it had a better mix that made the vocals audible; "My Dead Gay Son," performed by Kurt's and Ram's fathers (Anthony Crivello and Daniel Cooney), hits every obvious note but is nonetheless a crowd favorite; and "Seventeen" is a genuinely catchy pop show tune.

The producers were wise to go with a modest (meaning cheap) Off Broadway mounting of material not built to withstand the spotlight of a bigger stage. But the unimaginative design of Timothy R. Mackabee's set is a missed opportunity that no amount of candy-colored filters from Jason Lyons' lighting can disguise. What the show could really use is competent direction. The ensemble characters are identified by type (New Wave Party Girl, Stoner Chick, Beleaguered Geek, etc.), though even with that limitation, they barely register because Fickman leaves them standing around twiddling their thumbs whenever they're not speaking or singing. Marguerite Derricks' slapdash choreography doesn't help either.

But this is a goofy show more dependent on inbuilt affection for the movie than on finessed execution. If it blunts the fangs of its inspiration, it at least salutes a late-'80s pop-cultural touchstone with the affection it deserves.

Venue: New World Stages, New York (runs through Aug. 4)

Cast: Barrett Wilbert Weed, Ryan McCartan, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Elle McLemore, Alice Lee, Katie Ladner, Evan Todd, Jon Eidson, Charissa Hogeland, Cait Fairbanks, Rachel Flynn, Dustin Sullivan, Dan Domenech, A.J. Meijer, Anthony Crivello, Daniel Cooney, Michelle Duffy

Director: Andy Fickman

Music, book and lyrics: Kevin Murphy, Laurence O'Keefe, based on the film written by Daniel Waters

Set designer: Timothy R. Mackabee

Lighting designer: Jason Lyons

Costume designer: Amy Clark

Sound designer: Jonny Massena

Fights directors: Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet

Orchestrations and arrangements: Laurence O'Keefe, Ben Green

Musical director: Dominick Amendum

Choreographer: Marguerite Derricks

Executive producer: Denise Di Novi, in association with Lakeshore Entertainment

Presented by Hasty Pudding Presents, Andy Cohen, Andy Fickman, J. Todd Harris, Kevin Murphy, Laurence O’Keefe, Amy Powers, Jamie Bendell, Bruce Bendell, Scott Benson, Scott Prisand, Big Block Entertainment, Michael Paesano, Bernard Abrams & Michael Speyer/StageVentures, Katie Leary/Vineyard Point Productions, Bill Prady, Karen J. Lauder