Since its release in 1988, Heathers has become a cult classic. Taking a jarringly dark approach to teenage angst, the original film follows Veronica (Winona Ryder) and her homicidal boyfriend J.D. (Christian Slater) as they seek unorthodox revenge on their classmates. A black comedy, Heathers finds hilarity in everything from social anxiety to murder. Heathers: The Musical, a 2010 stage adaptation written by Lawrence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, pushes this juxtaposition a step further; characters joyfully belt out tunes like “Dead Girl Walking,” “I Am Damaged,” and “My Dead Gay Son.” Arts Undergraduate Theater Society (AUTS) takes another look at the beloved classic, in its rendition of Heathers: The Musical, running in Moyse Hall Theatre from Jan. 26-28.
University is an interesting time to explore Heathers’ high school themes, particularly because the cast and crew are at a perfect age to reflect on their recent high school experience. AUTS successfully created a production that satirizes high school without being too distant—Heathers: The Musical is a hyperbolic representation of adolescence, yet its core themes are still powerful.
“Heathers really hits home for me on the topics of mental health and bullying,” wrote director Kenzia Dalie in her director’s note.
Heathers: The Musical is a somewhat sinister play—it would be easy to take issue with its myriad aggressive, bullying, and murderous characters. Despite the challenge, Dalie built an immensely likeable cast. Darragh McArdle and Colin McCrossan are brilliantly funny as bully jocks Kurt and Ram: Their duet “Blue” revealed a special knack for physical comedy. From her bold portrayal of bleeding-heart teacher Ms. Flemming, it is hard to imagine that actress Esmée Cook is only twenty. Olivia Woodhouse brought both hilarity and sympathy to school loser Martha Dunnstock. Each of these characters represents high school archetypes, yet the actors were never swallowed by stereotypes, instead delivering dynamic and interesting performances. Much like the original Heathers cast, the actors understood that their characters could be funny, cruel, and depressed—often all at once.
Caroline Portante was especially astounding, stealing the show as the lead, Heather Chandler. This is only Portante’s second show with AUTS—she had an ensemble role in last year’s RENT—but Portante consumed the stage. A spectacular dancer, Portante was mesmerizing not only in choreographed routines, but also in delivering dialogue. Through haughty saunters, hair flips, and hip swivels, Portante embodied Heather in every movement. Portante had perhaps the most difficult challenge in making the cruel Queen Bee likeable, yet she delivered even Heather’s harshest catchphrases—including the famous “What’s your damage?”—with an irresistible charisma. Much like her peers, Portante understood that Heathers is about revealing the depth behind stock characters.
However well-acted, the show was not without technical flaws. Background music often drowned out the voices of the actors. In one number, McCrossan’s microphone stopped working altogether. While the lead actors shined, some of the chorus members seemed unclear of their roles, mumbling lyrics, and missing the occasional dance move. This uncertainty extended to costume. While the titular Heathers captured the outfits of the original film perfectly, the chorus costumes were cartoonishly 80s. Extra corsets and gaudy leather jackets undermined the play’s underlying goal of authenticity. Ironically, and most likely unintentionally, this hierarchy most succinctly captures the high school totem pole.
Still, Heathers: The Musical is an impressive feat. The original film straddled the delicate line between satire and realism, between the vulgar and the intimate, between cruelty and comedy. The AUTS team is up for the challenge, and expertly navigates these dichotomies, creating a show that is both heart breaking and laugh-out-loud funny.
Heathers: The Musical is playing Jan. 26-28 at Moyse Hall. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students.