How much will you identify with Heathers: The Musical? Well, that may depend on whether you recognize the type of high school students you meet in the opening number. They’re the kind of kids who, on the first day of school, hurl nasty insults at their classmates: “Freak! Slut! Burnout! Bug-Eyes! Poser! Lard-Ass!”
Veronica Sawyer, the misfit senior at the center of Heathers, recognizes her suburban Ohio high school for the battle zone it is. “College will be paradise,” she sings, “If I’m not dead by June.”
Like the terrific (and bizarre) 1988 movie that inspired it, Heathers: The Musical satirizes everything from high school caste systems to teenage suicide. It’s a darker-than-dark comedy, occasionally going over the edge from humorous to morbid. But Heathers: The Musical is done with such spirit and dedication that The Eagle Theatre’s production is hard to resist.
The coolest of the cool kids at Westerburg High are the Heathers – three impeccably dressed, impeccably coiffed girls, all named Heather. They’ve raised being a mean girl to an art form: they spend their days mocking anyone less cool than them, and that means basically everyone in the school. Veronica is desperate to be one of the cool kids, and when she uses her skill at forging hall passes to help the Heathers out of a jam, they reward her by making her a fourth member of their clique. Eventually Veronica tires of the Heathers’ relentless cruelty, but not before she falls in love with J.D. He’s the school’s new bad boy, but Veronica doesn’t realize just how bad he is until he starts taking out the people who have wronged her. And when the body count starts rising, she realizes just how dangerous things have become.
Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy adapted Heathers for the stage, writing the book, music and lyrics. Their book uses a lot of the funniest lines from Daniel Waters’ movie script, but adds a few twists to the plot. For instance, after J.D. starts murdering his classmates, the victims come back as ghosts who haunt Veronica. It’s a good development, as it allows the victims to make snarky comments that pressure Veronica into confronting J.D. But some parts of the script don’t work, particularly the teenagers’ interactions with adults. Veronica’s parents are implausibly dense, and J.D.’s testy relationship with his father goes nowhere.
The lyrics are consistently witty and perceptive, with offbeat twists on standard musical theatre concepts. In “Freeze Your Brain,” J.D. sings about the one thing that gives him comfort in a cruel world: the Slurpees at 7-Eleven (“Happiness comes / When everything numbs / Who needs cocaine?”). In “Big Fun,” child of the eighties Veronica sings of the joy of suddenly becoming popular: “I’m not alone! I’m not afraid! / I feel like Bono at Live Aid!” There are also some thoughtful, tender ballads, including “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” in which the school’s least popular girl (Maria Panvini, in a lovely performance) recalls the last time she felt truly happy.
The music isn’t as consistently fresh as the lyrics, but some of the best numbers evoke 1980’s pop styles. “Seventeen” is a power ballad that sounds as if it could have been on the soundtrack of Top Gun, and “Meant to Be Yours” connotes J.D.’s anxiety through jittery drums and massed synthesizers. (Jason Neri’s six-piece band captures the style of eighties synth-pop, although the band’s volume sometimes makes the lyrics hard to hear.)
The movie version of Heathers had some crude moments, and the musical goes even further, adding a song called “Blue” that is basically a three-minute long dirty joke. But it works, because it’s a funny dirty joke. Heathers: The Musical may take the low road sometimes, but it largely succeeds. And it stays true to the movie’s warped vision.
However, it should be noted that Heathers: The Musical is set in the same 1980s time frame as the movie – a time before Columbine, Sandy Hook, and dozens of other school shootings changed a school-based mass murder plot from something preposterous to something sadly far from unusual. As a result, what seemed irreverent in 1988 may now seem merely tasteless to some theatergoers.
Director Ed Corsi’s production is well-paced and filled with strong singers. As Veronica, Cailene Kilcoyne shows off some impressive belting and a dynamic personality on “Dead Girl Walking,” while Adam Hoyak, who has just the right sullen look as J.D., matches her power on “Seventeen.” Jessica Husch, Jordan O’Brien, and Justina Ercole are suitably haughty as the Heathers, while Kevin Hurley and Frankie Rowles score big laughs as a couple of dumb jocks.
Costume Designer Sean Quinn gets a surprising amount of variety out of preppy sweaters, knee socks, and short skirts. The set design by JT Murtagh and Corsi is functional, but the single set – a replication of the school gym – can make it hard to figure out we’re supposed to be in a bedroom or a 7-Eleven. Justina Ercole’s choreography is energetic, but the bleacher seats that take up much of the stage don’t leave much room for dancing.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including an intermission.