Jay Menard reviews Heathers: The Musical

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Heathers: The Musical
Musical Theatre Productions
Books, Music, and Lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe
Based on the film by Daniel Waters
Produced by Adam Zess
Directed by Ian Bader
Musical Director: Eric Charbonneau
Choreographer: Lia Karidas

Starring:
Laura Martineau as Veronica Sawyer
Stephan Ingram as J.D.
Elena Reyes as Heather Chandler
Run time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including a 20-minute intermission
May 6-14, 2016
The McManus Studio at The Grand Theatre

The Musical Theatre Productions’ presentation of Heathers is a hilarious, rousing, and inspired piece of theatre that’s currently energizing the McManus Studio’s stage.

The production is a music version of the iconic 1988 film that starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, in the roles of Veronica and J.D. respectively. Veronica is desperate to become one of the popular kids and chooses to sidle up with a trio of alpha girls, the Heathers, who rule the high school with iron fists and acid tongues.

There’s a social pecking order and the Heathers are at the top. Veronica falls for the brooding J.D. and the pair begin to exact revenge on the societal ills – leading to an explosive conclusion.

It’s a challenge for any actor to step into such well-worn shoes of a pop culture standard. Laura Martineau, in the role of Veronica Sawyer, clearly embraces the challenge and makes the role her own. She goes from earnest sweetness to conniving mean girl with grace and dexterity. She wears the conflict well and is the heart of this production. Elena Reyes, as the leader of the Heathers, Heather Chandler, is a simmering volcano of hate and venom, ready to erupt upon anyone who crosses her path. And, importantly for a musical, they both have the voices to back up their performances.

Ingram’s J.D. is appropriately brooding and his singing – shown to great effect recently in Manuel – is his greatest strength. And the supporting cast is solid – particularly Alicia D’Ariano’s Heather Duke and Tara Portiss’ Martha Dunnstock. Benjamin Kennes in the role of Ram and Thomas Krasey in the role of Kurt are spectacularly obnoxious. And their roles are representative of the strength of this production. In truth, no one in this play, save for Dunnstock, is sympathetic. You could be forgiven if you hated each and every one of them – but they’re so eminently likeable throughout. And that’s why Heathers is so much fun.

Suicide, murder, date rape, fat shaming – all the hallmarks of a rip-roaring good time, right? That’s the genius of Heathers. It’s a dark comedy that allows you to be entertained by the worst that humanity has to offer, without ever making the characters sympathetic. There’s no false redemption during the play – the assholes remain assholes, even after death.

The tragedy, as Sawyer states, is that “they were just 17. They still had room to grow… now we’ll never know.”

The music is by far the star of the show. Not only are there moments of musical inspiration in songs like “Blue” – sung by two, drunken, would-be date rapists complete with the lyric, “You make my balls so blue”; and the two fathers singing “My Dead Gay Son” before having an epiphany of their own.

But beyond just progressing the story and providing a healthy dose of humour, the music also serves to set the tone. The final performance of “Our Love is God,” just before the Act One curtain, takes on a much more ominous tone – and for those familiar with the story, it’s an appropriate hallmark of what’s to come.

The stage was simple but effective – essentially the same door that served as the focal point, but with clever use of accessories to transition from school to home to various other locations. And the costuming was outstanding – ably recalling the best (and, yes, the worst) of the 80s.

In the moment, Heathers is a blast – no pun intended, and the songs will have you humming for days. But there’s always a but…

The movie Heathers was released in 1988. And having watched it both when it came out on the big screen and now, on stage at the McManus in its musical iteration, I can attest to the fact that it’s an odd feeling when you come out of the theatre. During the production, you’re immersed in the music, the vibrancy, the humour, and the passion – it’s a multi-sensory experience that’s truly enjoyable and fun. But coming out of the theatre, after the euphoria of the production wears off, there’s something else.

The story focuses its trigger warnings on the subject of suicide. But there’s an equally present and troubling trend that is at the heart of Heathers that remains a scourge on our society today – kids killing kids.

Students killing students wasn’t invented in 1988. But it wasn’t part of the public conscious. What seemed like an extreme fantasy in 1988 is an all-too-regular reality in today’s world.

Columbine, Red Lake, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook – some are known in the common vernacular by the school; some are known by the city. All are tragedies. In 1989, the year the play is set, Canada suffered from the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal. You can’t watch Heathers with the same level of innocence that you may have gotten away with in its on-screen version. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, or less entertaining. It’s just different.

It’s laughter, but with a touch of nervousness to it as well.

Jay Menard is a corporate communications writer and freelance Arts & Culture writer. See more of his work at www.jaymenard.com.

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