People are not always what they seem in Sharonville, a small town in Ohio, where the super-smart seventeen-year-old agnostic “mystery girl” Heather Krebs doesn’t fit in, wants to find a boyfriend, and keeps getting signs that she might actually be the Second Coming of the Messiah. Sound strange? It is, and the new coming-of-age pop musical comedy/post-modern morality play The Gospel According to Heather, written by Paul Gordon (book, music, and lyrics) and presented by Amas Musical Theatre at Off-Broadway’s Theater 555, is also funny and quirky and didactic and spirited, with a terrific cast of rising stars and seasoned veterans of the stage and screen.
Under the fluid and animated direction and choreography of Rachel Klein, the allegorical story and scenes move along at a rapid pace and the cast of eleven embraces the array of laughably familiar types and unexpected identities, delivers the youthful high-energy moves, and brings their outstanding voices to twenty original songs (with music direction by Jonathan Bauerfeld and music supervision by Jodie Moore) that define the characters and convey the uplifting message of the need to love each other and not to buy into the divisive rhetoric that continues to polarize us.
The irresistible Brittany Nicole Williams stars as the titular high-school outsider (who introduces herself and her perspective in the blockbuster opening number “My Name Is Heather Krebs”), capturing, with a perfect balance of humor and heart, her exceptional intelligence and dissatisfaction, outspoken honesty and vulnerability, desire for someone to date and reluctance to acknowledge her special healing power, despite the growing awareness of others who follow or oppose her, at school and in the press, and those who reveal their supernatural essence and enlighten her (no spoilers here; find out for yourself who they are and what they say).
Providing fine featured performances and powerful vocals are Maya Lagerstam as the popular girl Kaisley, who only befriends Heather because of high-school athlete Matthew’s interest in her, but remains friends to increase her following on social media once the word gets out that Heather might be the new Messenger (their duet on “Wait” is one of the many musical highlights of the show); Carson Stewart as Zach, an eighteen-year-old graffiti artist with a troubled past and a score to settle, who cautiously enters (through the window) into their teen romance (as expressed in the equivocal “Don’t Go Spreading Rumors”); and Badia Farha as her supportive teacher Ms. Parker, who believes in knowledge, recognizes and encourages her advanced academic excellence, and poses the thematically relevant Kantian question, “Does the mind form the world or does the world form the mind?” – something for both Heather and the audience to ponder.
Other key figures in Heather’s journey are Ray, a busker she encounters on the street, and Booker Ralston, a conservative podcast host, who adamantly espouses ridiculous incendiary right-wing dogma, which Heather candidly calls out in a live interview – both played with distinction by Jeremy Kushnier.
And Golden Globe-winning TV comedy favorite Katey Sagal (in her NYC stage debut) turns in a risible performance as Agatha, a wheelchair-bound resident of the Senior Center where Heather volunteered and continues to visit, to unload all her teenage angst by confiding in the elder, who remains silent and unresponsive (except for her sardonic direct-address asides to the audience).
Rounding out the across-the-board excellent ensemble are Laura Elder as Heather’s mother Grace, who really doesn’t get her or her uncooperative fourteen-year-old brother Samuel, portrayed by Zach Rand, and mostly just wants them to eat what she cooks for them; Carlos Alcala (who also takes on the roles of Matthew and the high-school principal Mr. Stevens) as the toxic tough guy Creature, an older boy in the neighborhood who is prone to violence (fight direction by Timothy Ellis Riley); and Heather’s unwanted Disciples Ted, Macy, and Stanley – amusingly embodied by the highly entertaining triple-threats Wayne Wilson, Maria Habeeb, and Rand. There is not a single weak link among them in this imaginative youth-oriented show.
An eye-catching artistic design supports the narrative with vibrant contemporary costumes by Saawan Tiwari, colorful lighting by Jamie Roderick, pertinent props by Brendan McCann, including an ancient Roman coin and a scroll with the new Nine (not Ten) Commandments, and an efficient set by Christopher and Justin Swader centered on the painted backdrop of a landscape framed by the exterior of a modern suburban house, with roll-in elements that easily shift from Heather’s school to her home to the podcast studio and outdoor locales, all enhanced by Sean Hagerty’s sound.
The Gospel According to Heather offers a fresh, young, and timely take on society, politics, and religion, through a witty thought-provoking book, a catchy score, and dynamic acting, direction, and choreography, and leaves us with the positive feel-good moral that “love is the word.” It’s a take-away message we all should embrace.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.
The Gospel According to Heather plays through Sunday, July 16, 2023, at Theater 555, 555 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $39-59, plus fees), go online. Masks are not required but are encouraged.