Ah … the Reagan ’80s, back when politicians had good hair. It was a B+ era: Spielberg dominated with milquetoast dramas pinned on the high-octane antics of cleverly drawn action films. The causes were taken out of rebels, former Yippie Jerry Rubin became a vitamin mogul, and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver voted Republican. Retail therapy was invented, and for many people the cultural climate heated up in malls. Disney-esque perfection in all its primary colors and nostalgia for a Beaver Cleaver 1950s was on cable television sets and radios. After Black Monday, when the stock market plummeted at the end of the decade, everyday people were becoming a little restless with conformity.
And then there was Heathers. Triangle Productions, in collaboration with Staged!, has assembled a 17-member cast and brought to life (and death) a painstakingly grand stage production of that pop-cultural icon of the era.
In the ’80s a few video store clerks, such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith ,and Daniel Waters, began writing scripts inspired by the edgier ’70s films with their Mike Hammer dialogue. In 1988, Daniel Waters came out with a cinematic flop titled Heathers. But teenagers fell in love, and it became a quick cult classic. It was as if John Waters, Milton Friedman, and Michael Eisner had made a film together. Winona Ryder, fresh off the sneaker hit Beetlejuice, played Veronica in the film, and those roles cemented her as the somewhat pensive and melancholy pretty girl who always triumphs because of her big heart.
Today, Heathers is a campy caricature of the dreaded social order of high school, but in its time it made a statement for adolescent underdogs. Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, after a successful collaboration on the musical Reefer Madness (based on the 1936 C+ propaganda film), decided to set to song the underground hit Heathers. Movie purists may disagree, but in Heathers: The Musical, O’Keefe and Murphy tightened up the movie’s characters and plot. All of the Tim Burton, Slaves of New York, Warhol-Basquiat Neo Pop art is thrown out for the sake of the real issues in the script. They took the best one-liners from the film and elevated them with classic-sounding Broadway tunes. The musical is a devotional to the best and worst of times in high school during that confused decade, and a celebration of the indie youth culture that Generation X would soon define.
Here’s the cliff notes: Veronica Sawyer is a smart, poetic high schooler who is climbing the social ladder by joining the most popular clique at Westerberg High, the Heathers. The Heathers are a trio of materialistic, manipulative, and mostly superficial well-dressed teens who torment everyone below them.Veronica falls for the new student, JD, a bad boy whose father runs a demolition company. As Veronica becomes closer to JD, she finds herself at odds with the bullying pack of Heathers. JD ,through a series of lies, gets Veronica to murder three of the students and frame them as suicides. The students and adults are flummoxed by the new rash of deaths, and it becomes a fashionable vanity cause. As Veronica’s conscience begins to creep in, she realizes JD is dangerous and breaks up with him. He, in turn, makes a plan to bomb the school and kill all of the students inside, so he can have Veronica all to himself. Veronica gets wise to his plan and in the end, saves the day, but at a cost. That being shorthanded, trigger warnings about bullying, suicide, violence and rape are recommended. Part of the mystique of Heathers is that somehow all of this combined comes off as absurd and funny.
Emily Horton, costume designer, has recreated not only the look of the Heathers in their red, yellow, green and blue women’s business attire/private school look, but also eerily caught all of the dubious fashion senses of the time. There’s the Cosby sweater with leather leaves, a boy who wears two polo shirts at once, the factory-embroidered carpet bagger vest, JD’s signature black trench coat (Did Daniel Waters call TV psychic Dionne Warwick? The eerie coincidence of a high school mass murderer who wears a black trench coat….), Veronica has her signature monocle and the mini-skirt jumper with big buttons.
Live on stage is a six piece band led, by Jonathan Quesenberry, that kicks out the jams alongside the strong-voiced choir of the cast, and the sounds out of Triangle have never been better. There are no Debbie Gibson, George Michael, or, thankfully, Rick Astley melodies, but some good hooks and refrains and the occasional booming solo that make us love and earmark our American songbook.
Much like Ryder in the ’80s, Malia Tippets – who recently had the title role in Stumptown Stages’ Carrie: The Musical – is in another part as a deviant, this time as Veronica. Tippets doesn’t play the part as a Ryder imitation; she makes the character her own. She has a classic voice, but with hints here and there of gospel soul. Her Veronica is confident, quirky, ironic, literary, and liberated, as in the film, but O’Keefe and Murphy’s musical rounds the character out and makes her inner struggles more tangible and complicated. In Veronica’s flirtatious beginnings with JD, in her frustrations with Heather Chandler, and in the chorus dance scenes, there’s an authentic pleasure in Tippets’ performance: a come-hither glee.
Ethan Crystal, as the duplicitous JD, has a sexy smile and eyebrow arch, but not the overdrawn Jack Nicholson pantomime that Christian Slater portrayed in the movie. Crystal’s JD is the seductive skater boy, a jock at heart, but in active pursuit of all things outsider. Crystal and Tippets have the electricity of first romance, and it makes you a little jealous, longing for times when the newness was just as exhilarating as falling in love. Crystal’s performance of Our Love Is God is an alluring and dark ballad of a confusion between youth’s ignorance of mortality and a megalomaniac’s vision of a quixotic romance. His JD is just as he should be played, captivating at first and later frightening, but somewhat sad in his demise.
One of the reasons Heathers won over teenagers is that none of the characters act like teenagers. They may be at high school, but they have insider knowledge about all their faults and strengths and throw repartee with missile-like precision and the ability of a war crimes interrogator. It’s the verbal acuity every frustrated and downtrodden teen fantasizes about, and Heathers put this cathartic daydream on the big screen.
Scarier in her dictatorship of the red scrunchie, Kelsey Bentz’s portrayal of the uberfrau and clique leader Heather Chandler hits with an icy coldness that usurps the film version. A recent high school graduate herself, Bentz’s Heather is a contagious mix between Britney Spears and Eva Braun. She leads the Heathers’ anthem Candy Store with a voracious set of pipes and imposes a commanding presence on stage. Kaitlyn Sage as the bulimic Heather Duke is ditzy and lamb-like in her following of the other Heathers, just as in the film, but with more personality than the original. Hannah Lauren Wilson plays McNamara, the darker-haired Heather who wears yellow. While in the film version, McNamara’s character takes over with great revenge after Heather Chandler dies, in the musical McNamara hits bottom in the song Lifeboat. Her penitence is real, and the anguish on her face is not merely disturbing, like a person crying in public, but a true call out for human compassion as she struggles in agony over the school suicides and bullying. Wilson’s solo on Lifeboat is stunning and poignant and brings a gravitas to the production.
Erin Shannon’s choreography remains true to the original off-Broadway production and allows the talented cast to shine through numbers. The first hallowed entrance of the Heathers is a Busby Berkeley lineup under a tent of green cafeteria trays. In the gospel-like Shine a Light and the party song Big Fun there’s a natural balance between professional dance and the awkward but exhilarating moves of a teenager. Not a beat or a step was missed in the pageants of eye candy that the cast displayed.
Kurt (Michel Castillo) and Ram (Blake Stone) are Westerberg High’s less-than-intellectual, chauvinist jocks. While the film played more on their perpetuation of rape culture and homophobic stereotyping of their murders, the musical gives them more laughs and quotes some of the characters from Grease and its doo-wop moments. Castillo and Stone are song and dance men as if Neil Simon had written characters that suffered from continuing head concussions. They’re laughable and entertaining throughout the night. The pinnacle of Triangle’s Heathers is Kurt and Ram’s dads’ duet I Love My Dead Gay Son. Joe Theissen and Colin Wood deliver the goods, just like a long touring band waiting for the right moment to give the audience the number one hit song they’ve been waiting for.
Triangle and Staged! put a lot of heart and soul into this celebration of strong young women and a generation on the brink. Producers Donald Horn and Chanda Hall and director Diane Englert have recreated the feel of the late ’80s, created an homage to an underground classic, and put on a top-notch musical. As JD says: “The extreme always seems to make an impression.”
Heathers: The Musical continues through April 9 at The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza. Ticket and schedule information here.