The darkly hilarious nihilism of the cult film gets smothered in cheese and comes out half-baked in Trevor Ashley’s re-staging of the off-Broadway production
There’s a reason why the Arts Centre was ablaze with red scrunchies, shoulder pads and plaid on the opening night of Heathers the Musical. Decades on, Daniel Waters’ 1988 pitch black teen comedy is still drawing new devotees into its cult – a cult which takes high school’s boiling cauldron of desperate nerds, popular jocks, weirdos and bitches and treats them all with a nihilism that borders on psychopathic. You think Mean Girls was dark? Cady Heron didn’t aid in the murder of Regina George then fake her suicide note. Regina didn’t use phrases like “fuck me gently with a chainsaw”. As much as Janis Ian and Damian wanted to bring down the popular kids, they didn’t shoot them in the chest.
Nope – only Heathers goes this far. And at the centre of it all is Heather Chandler, head of the monstrous trio of croquet mallet-wielding Heathers that the aspirational Veronica Sawyer is so hungry to join. At first, Sawyer is ecstatic to be accepted, but soon, she becomes intent on bringing Chandler down – a plan that her deranged boyfriend JD is all to happy to help enact.
Does this storyline sound ripe for a musical theatre adaptation? Well, sure, if you get the tone right. Unfortunately, Heathers the Musical – which premiered off-Broadway in 2014 – doesn’t quite hit the croquet ball through the hoop.
When the Westerberg High-crested curtains rise, it looks as if we’re onto a good thing. The cast spring onto the stage and launch into the lively, piano-driven rock number ‘Beautiful’. We’ve seen enough American high school movies to instantly understand the status quo – representatives of every tier of the high school caste system, lockers, football trophies – except that this is Heathers, so the lyrics to the opening number are smattered with typical high school barbs like “lardass, slut, loser, homo”.
Some opening night sound issues aside, these initial scenes are as funny as they are mean and sarcastic. They move at a cracking pace, thanks in a large part to musical director Ben Kennedy’s solid grasp of the peppy music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blonde the Musical) and Kevin Murphy (Desperate Housewives). Hilary Cole’s wise-cracking Veronica Sawyer is a vocal powerhouse with a lot of heart; she embodies that burning teenage desire to fit in. She’s a perfect counterbalance to ice-cold Heather Chandler (Lucy Maunder) and her two underlings, Heather Duke (Hannah Fredericksen) and Heather McNamara (Rebecca Hetherington).
But right around the time that Veronica begins questioning whether being part of the Heathers dictatorship is all it's cracked up to be, we start wondering the same thing about this show. Director Trevor Ashley (a cabaret stalwart in Melbourne) slathers on the cheese in Chandler’s death scene, and overplays some moments while missing nuances in others. The performers are uniformly fantastic, but the leads aren’t given room to shine (or really dance: the choreography [Cameron Mitchell] would be impressive at a high school musical). Lucy Maunder (who most recently graced the Arts Centre stage in Ladies in Black) is criminally underused and her two sidekicks come across as caricatures. As a result, the messed up scenes seem farcical – a far cry from the edgy, bleak humour of the film.
This becomes a real problem when we get to the truly fucked up stuff. There’s a responsibility that comes with portraying teen suicide, murder, school shootings (remember, the film came out before Columbine happened), sexual abuse and eating disorders – and this production doesn’t earn that right. Darker-than-dark jokes about suicide that worked in the context of the film (“I was impressed to see that she made proper use of the word ‘myriad’ in her suicide note,” opines one teacher) just don’t sit well with forced Glee-style fluffiness. Neither do rape jokes. And then there’s the unforgivable ‘My Dead Gay Son’, in which the funeral scene for the two jocks turns into a camped-up, limp-wristed Brokeback Mountain love declaration between the two dead sons’ fathers – hideous stereotypes and all. Are we seriously still using being gay as a punchline in 2016?
Several moments towards the end of the show do hit sweeter notes (Lauren McKenna is a standout as both Martha and Ms. Fleming, and the reprise of ‘Seventeen’ packs an emotional punch) but it’s too little, too late for this confused adaptation.
Anyone who made it through high school connects with Heathers, the first high school movie where teen angst had a body count. Unfortunately, Heathers the Musical is the most recent addition to its list of victims.
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