Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel’s reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
One of the most quoted lines from Daniel Waters’s 1989 teen film HEATHERS is the succinct, biting question: “What’s your damage?” Kokandy Productions’ staging of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL leaves the “damage” behind in favor of delight, yet still captures the agony and terror of high school. This production marks the musical’s Chicago premiere (it debuted Off-Broadway at New World Stages in 2014.) With book, music, and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL manages to be both satirical and at times legitimately moving, largely echoing the biting tone of the original film in the show’s first act and unfolding onto more sincere, sentimental territory in the second. As directed by James Beaudry, Kokandy’s dynamite cast brings the story to life with humor and heart.
Murphy and O’Keefe take some liberties from the film’s narrative. In the film, audiences never learn how protagonist Veronica Sawyer (Courtney Mack) becomes tight with the titular Heathers—cheerleader Heather McNamara, the envious second-in-command Heather Duke, and queen bee Heather Chandler—she is thoroughly intertwined with this reigning clique from the start. Thus, Veronica exudes a sense of confidence and disinterest that make clear her character’s motivations, and her desire to bring about Heather Chandler’s literal downfall. She accomplishes this with the help of her loner boyfriend J.D. and a mug full of drain cleaner—which sends the pair into an increasingly more destructive spiral of revenge on the popular crowd. In the musical, audiences are given a backstory for Veronica, which doesn’t add much to the dynamic between her and the Heathers, but does solidify Veronica’s role as the “good girl”—or, at the very least, the girl who perceives herself as good.
The score falls in the same pop rock vein as shows such as Jonathan Larson’s RENT and Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s NEXT TO NORMAL. This contemporary sound helps bring the HEATHERS story into the 21st century and seems musically fitting for a show about high school teens. The first act largely mirrors the pointed satire that characterizes the film, which is tempered with the more affecting tone of the second. This choice helps make HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL its own distinct entity and also makes it more palatable for 2016 audiences. HEATHERS was released before Columbine and other mass school shootings made nationwide headlines and wasn’t afraid to take the revenge plot (and particularly J.D.’s character arc) to an extreme that makes the film less satirical and more tragic for contemporary audiences. By making HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL a more sincere work in its second act, Murphy and O’Keefe bring a dose of seriousness to the work, while also allowing audiences to fully enjoy the humor in the story.
And indeed, there’s a great deal of fun to be had in HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL. While the show’s opening number “Beautiful” doesn’t fully dive into the satirical game, by the time the Heathers bust out the second number “Candy Store”—in which Heather Chandler chides Veronica to “prove you’re not a loser anymore”—it feels like we’ve firmly landed in true Heathers territory. “The Me Inside of Me,” sung by Heather Chandler and the ensemble in the wake of her death, also strikes a carefully crafted balance between satire and heart that feels right on target. The song pays homage to the fact that all high schoolers feel misunderstood—with the ironic twist being that Heather Chandler haunts the stage and revels in her reinforced popularity. Veronica and J.D.’s number “Seventeen” has a catchy melody and serves in a way as the musical’s theme, reinforcing the idea that to be that age is both wonderful and terrible. And the song “Blue” for football jocks Kurt and Ram is a humorous highlight, sung during a rendezvous in the cemetery with Veronica, Heather McNamara, and Heather Duke.
The cast is terrific. Courtney Mack is superb as Veronica. She effectively plays the character as earnest and sweet, with a dose of confident swagger, consistently nailing the demands of her vocal part—and her distinctive laugh is a pitch perfect choice. Mack also isn’t afraid to play it a little naughty, as we see in the number “Dead Girl Walking” in which she runs to J.D. for some solace after being ripped apart by Heather Chandler at a high school party. . As Heather Chandler, Jacquelyne Jones oozes confidence and venom—her powerhouse vocals mimic her role in the high school hierarchy. But when Chandler returns to haunt Veronica from the grave, Jones allows us to see a more vulnerable side. Teressa LaGamba is delightful as Martha and her beautifully sung, affecting solo number in the second act is a highlight. As Heather Duke, Hayley Jane Schafer fully commits to her character’s endless thirst for popularity—and particularly delights in her “on-camera” interviews in the wake of Chandler’s death. Rochelle Therrien manages to make Heather McNamara both irritating and likable, particularly when we see a deeper side to her in “Lifeboat.” Chris Ballou handles the vocal demands of J.D.’s role nicely, but I wanted to see more of an edge to his performance. Both as written and performed, J.D. reads a touch too mushy and self-aware, when he’s meant to be all-out vengeful and destructive. J.D.’s duet with Veronica “Our Love Is God,” however, digs into that dark side. I wish that Murphy and O’Keefe had honed in further on that element of the character.
Visually, the production sets just the right tone. Ashley Ann Woods’ set simply but effectively evokes high school hallways, and the multi-level design gives the ensemble a lot of ground on which to play. Sawyer Smith’s choreography also stays on the simple side, but the movement effectively mirrors the satire of the piece. Brandon Wardell’s lighting adds a burst of technicolor flash, which seems fitting for the show’s larger-than-life moments.
For fans of the original HEATHERS film and contemporary musical theater alike, HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL is a “so very” good show to see.