High school hell – a review of Heathers: The Musical

Musical version of cult film runs for six performances at Peterborough's Market Hall

Hope Clarkin as Heather Duke, Audrey Massender as Heather Chandler, and Jesse Morrison as Heather Macnamara in The Anne Shirley Theatre Company's production of "Heathers: The Musical"
Hope Clarkin as Heather Duke, Audrey Massender as Heather Chandler, and Jesse Morrison as Heather Macnamara in The Anne Shirley Theatre Company's production of Heathers: The Musical

The annual musical from The Anne Shirley Theatre Company (ASTC) is always one of the highlights of my year. The Trent-based theatre group delivers the most interesting and off-beat theatre productions and provides a peek at the young talent who will hopefully be the stars of the city’s theatre community for the next few years. This year, director Lucas DeLuca maintains the tradition with ASTC’s presentation of Heathers: The Musical, based on the 1988 cult film of the same name.

I confess I was already won over by this show going in, because the film was so influential for me and my friends while growing up. However, what I didn’t expect was a company that would actually flesh out the film even further by giving the characters and story more depth, more humanity, and a lot more charm.

Released in 1988 with little fanfare, Heathers became a cult hit amongst discontented youth in the 1990s. A black comedy that parodied the popular John Hughes “Brat Pack” films of the era, Heathers spoofed high school social elitism, cliques, and suicide in a blunt and often sadistic manner.

The film made off-beat heartthrobs out of stars Christian Slater and Winona Ryder, who would become major box office draws throughout the ’90s only to fall off the pop culture radar in the next century.

Ironically, the social commentary about social elites that made Heathers so important at the time of its initial popularity is far more relevant today, in our post-9/11 society that embraces anti-bullying campaigns and fears school shootings. As a result, Heathers is a rich source of socially relevant material for the stage.

First developed by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy in 2010, Heathers: The Musical made its full-run debut in Los Angeles in 2013 before moving to New York, where it made its Off-Broadway debut in 2014. ASTC’s staging of this relatively new musical is only the third time that it’s been produced in Canada.

Those who have seen the movie know the story and, while the musical doesn’t make any changes to the plot, it expands some of the back stories and fleshes out some of the characters to make them more three dimensional. For those who don’t know the story, I’ll try to sum it up without giving away any spoilers.

Heathers is the story of Veronica Sawyer (Christina Pigeon) during her senior year at Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio. A smart and generally nice girl, Veronica takes the audience through the often-heartless social hierarchy that dominates life at the school. Life changes for Veronica when she falls into the most popular and powerful clique in the school, known as The Heathers. The classic “mean girl” clique, the group is led by the cold-hearted Heather Chandler (Audrey Massender) and her minions Heather Duke (Hope Clarkin) and Heather Macnamara (Jesse Morrison).

Although out of place and disgusted by her new friends, Veronica embraces her popularity but things are soon turned on their head when she meets the new outsider in school JD (Liam Parker). Torn between her popularity and her affection for her former best friend Martha “Dump Truck” (Kalene Lupton), Veronica commits a public act of disloyalty to Heather C. at a party — setting off a dark domino effect in which Veronica must choose between love and murder.

There is so much to love about ASTC’s performance of Heathers, but the key is that the actors find their own versions of the characters, instead of mimicing the film that inspired the show. Christina Pigeon’s Veronica is much sweeter and less cynical than Winona Rider’s portrayal of the character, and Liam Parker plays JD as less Christian Slater and more Columbine. Kalene Lupton gives Martha a personality, Jesse Morrison gives Heather M. a soul, and Audrey Massender is given the opportunity to flesh out Heather C. far more than the movie ever could. The result is a dynamic new twist on a film favourite.

Christina Pigeon as Veronica Sawyer and Liam Parker as JD
Christina Pigeon as Veronica Sawyer and Liam Parker as JD
Christina Pigeon is perfect as Veronica Sawyer. Smart, sweet and bold, she’s the audience’s guide to the bad boys and even badder girls of Westerberg High. While she gets in way over her head, what gets Veronica in the most trouble is that she isn’t a lemming like those around her. Often she’s the only truly good character in the production and she only has one weakness: her love for JD.

Last year, I was delighted by Christina’s performance as Adolfo Perelli in Sweeny Todd, where she displayed her high energy and keen sense of comic timing. In Heathers, she proves herself to be a highly charismatic leading actress with equal parts strength and sensitivity. I hope this won’t be the last time I’ll see Christina take centre stage, because I feel she has even more to offer.

I’ve also seen Liam Parker in numerous shows over the last few years. It’s hard to miss him with his trademark glasses and shock of spikey hair. But it’s a real pleasure to see him finally take a lead in the role of JD. Skipping the pretty boy charm that the character has in the film, Liam plays a darker version of JD. However, by fleshing out his back story and allowing him more time to rant, the audience “gets” him and understands why Veronica would be attracted to him. Liam plays an unconventional romantic anti-hero, which works beautifully in this production.

Of course, the biggest attraction of the show is The Heathers. Audrey Massender plays the main antagonist, Heather C., with a delightful combination of raw sexuality and pure evil. She isn’t the villain you love to hate — you just hate her. She’s the embodiment of every bully and mean kid who ever got under your skin, but she does it with style and poise. There is little to love about the character, except Audrey’s magnificent performance: she plays very bad very good.

Jessie Morrison plays Heather M. with probably the most depth of the three Heathers. The ultimate follower, Heather M. seems like a bitch but in reality is a little lost and a little confused. She also has some great comic moments, as seen in the cemetery scene which could have been very disturbing if Jessie didn’t make it so funny. Jessie Morrison is easily the most sympathetic and lovable of The Heathers.

Hope Clarkin as wannabe bad girl Heather D. shows some of the rawest talent. Hope first gained my attention last year in the TASS production of Aida, and I knew to keep my eye on her in the future. It’s a pleasure to see her back on the stage in an even stronger and often scene-stealing performance as Heather D. A firecracker filled with spite and bile, Hope explodes on stage and makes being nasty look so easy.

A special shout out goes to the big presence of Eddy Sweeny and Karsten Skaries as football jocks Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeny, two key characters in the drama. You’ll really hate these misogynistic and abusive jackasses, but Eddy and Karsten play them with such larger-than-life comical fun that you can’t help love them at the same time. Eddy and Karsten perform these two character roles with great comic timing.

While the casting of the show is easily its biggest asset, Heathers is not at its strongest when it comes to the musical performances. However, in some strange way this seems to benefit the show rather than hinder it because, for every note that is missed, the actor replaces it with emotion and meaning. While some musical theatre aficionados might call the musical performances flawed, I would argue that it just amplifies the quirkiness and off-beat nature of the show. In some strange way, it just kind of works.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any stand-out musical numbers in the show. The strongest number in the first act is the ensemble’s performance of “The Me Inside of Me” (which is also one of the more clever songs in the show), but the stand-out musical performances seem to happen in the second act and by secondary or even third-tier characters.

Josh Butcher, accompanied by Brandon Remmelgas, gives a spirited performance of “My Dead Gay Son”, Kalene Lupton hits an emotional chord with Martha Dumptruck’s ballad “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” Jessie Morrison gives an equally moving moment with “Lifeboat”, and — delivering possibly my favorite musical number — Samantha Hurl in the role of hippie teacher Ms. Fleming leads the cast in “Shine a Light”.

The big musical numbers also come alive thanks to the spectacular choreography of Elizabeth Moody. The high-energy cast moves, twerks, flips, and gyrates in spectacular production numbers. Meanwhile, Justin Hiscox and his band flawlessly play music not just during the numbers, but throughout the show as if they are scoring a film as the audience watches. An interesting effect rarely seen on the Peterborough stage, it’s subtle enough to go unnoticed, but once you realize it’s happening it has a very cool effect on the show.

Another shout out goes to Kathy Blackwood who put together the costumes, which are trendy yet timeless and make the cast look great. A special shout out goes to the brave cast member in the “Very” number, who strips all the way down to a black speedo (you’re a very brave and confident man).

Also notable is the clever and subtle lighting design by Gil Ruston. Most of the scenes are performed in dim light and shadows, as if it is commenting on the content itself. In a show with no set and few props, the lighting often becomes the set and Gil’s imaginative lighting helps set the tone for this production.

Heathers: The Musical is as bold and memorable as the movie that inspired it, and as potent now as when the film came out nearly 30 years ago. ASTC makes this show come alive with a vibrant and energetic cast that becomes instantly endearing. When Lucas DeLuca introduced the show to the small preview audience, he said “I think we have something very special.” He’s right — they really do.

Heathers: The Musical runs March 11th and 12th and 18th and 19th at Peterborough’s Market Hall. Tickets are $20 and $15 for seniors and students. The show starts at 8 p.m., with additional 2 p.m. matinees on both Saturdays.

Warning: as Heathers: The Musical deals with some mature content, it’s not suitable for very young audiences.

All photos by Sam Tweedle / kawarthaNOW.