Book, Music and Lyrics: Kevin Murphy & Laurence O’Keefe
Based on the Film by: Daniel Waters
Director: Andy Fickman
A box-office failure on its original release in 1989, the original movie version of Heathers has since built a reputation as one of the seminal coming-of-age films of all time. Written as a reaction to the comparatively bland teen movies of John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club etc), Heathers is a horse of a much darker colour, tackling teen suicide, depression, bullying, peer pressure, school cliques, mass murder and rape. Depressingly the themes of Heathers are more relevant today than ever before particularly in the wake of the 1999 Columbine school shootings, and an alarming rise in cyber-bullying and teen suicide, and while Heathers is a dark comedy, is it really a good subject for a musical comedy?
Thankfully in the hands of writers/composers Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, the answer is yes. Originally produced off-Broadway in 2010, similar to the film version, Heathers the Musical built a cult following that now spills over to mainstream success. Coming three years after the Legally Blonde musical (which Murphy and O’Keefe also wrote the songs and co-wrote the book for), this feels like a black palette cleanser to all of Legally Blonde’s bubblegum pink. The script and score very deftly manages to keep the tone just right: dark and angry while also being knowing and witty. Even in 2023, this still manages to create a show-stopping comic highlight out of a double teen suicide funeral (My Dead Gay Son) and redeem (most of) the characters and their heinous actions by the final curtain.
The small company are all extremely well cast. Jenna Innes as Veronica is rarely off the stage and has a lot of songs to belt out. The fact that she manages all of this with the required mix of snark and sincerity and never falters is a massive credit to her talent and energy. Veronica is a hell of a role, and Innes gives a hell of a performance. Alongside her is Jacob Fowler and J.D., the new kid who quickly embroils Veronica in a murderous web. This role can easily come across as one-dimensionally villainous, but Fowler’s charm and acting abilities make his J.D. an (almost) sympathetic figure, and his chemistry with Innes is palpable.
As the titular Heathers, Verity Thompson (as Heather Chandler), Elise Zavou (Heather Duke) and Billie Bowman (Heather MacNamara) really bring the goods and their mean-spirited number Candy Store is a standout. Thompson’s turn as an unapologetic bitch is beautifully balanced by her softening once she dies and becomes a figment of Veronica’s imagination. Zavou manages to make the opposite transition as the new head Heather, brilliantly moving from subservient to alpha with the catchy Never Shut Up Again, and Bowman (also Dance Captain) as the conflicted member of the group is gifted with the wonderful Lifeboat number, and captures the hearts of the audience in the process.
Kingsley Morton’s Martha is the innocent light in all of the darkness, and her performance is both fun and heart-breaking, particularly when she stops the show with a superlative rendition of Kindergarten Boyfriend. Alex Woodward and Morgan Jackson as Kurt and Ram are clearly having a ball playing the school’s bullying jocks and their beautifully directed double act manages to make their frankly heinous characters into the show’s hilarious comic centre.
If any criticisms were to be levelled at this production, it would be around its scale. The cast are all extremely talented but the stage feels sparse in many of the big numbers which really would have benefitted from two or four more supporting players to flesh out the ensemble. In a similar vein, the set feels a little cheap, as if it were for a school production (maybe intentionally but doubtful) although this is balanced by extremely impressive lighting design, and costumes that reflect the characters perfectly – especially in the contrasting colours of the four members of the Heathers. There are also a few sound balancing issues where the lyrics of some of the songs are lost under the enthusiasm of the band.
Not for the sensitive theatre-goer, Heathers the Musical is none-the-less a must-see. As witty as it is pitch black, this show probably speaks more to this generation as anything else on stage at the moment, and it doesn’t hurt that the score, script and cast are all pretty damned great.
Runs until 7th October 2023