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PUNCHY RELEVANCE: ‘Heathers the Musical’ takes serious material to heightened levels of hilarity

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‘Heathers The Musical’ is hilarious from the start, doubling down on camp and still relevant to audiences today.

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“This is excellent!” noted one of the fellas I was sitting beside at “Heathers the Musical” last weekend.

He was right.

“Have you ever seen the movie?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.

“Well, this is better. It has more camp. It’s like it evolved into a raunchy John Waters production—almost.”

GIRL FIGHT: Hunter Wyatt as Veronica Sawyer and Alexa Knippenberg as Heather Chandler in "Heathers." Courtesy of Panache Theatrical Productions

GIRL FIGHT: Hunter Wyatt as Veronica Sawyer and Alexa Knippenberg as Heather Chandler in “Heathers.” Courtesy of Panache Theatrical Productions

Quite frankly, that conversation should be enough to get everyone off their tuchus and into Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre this weekend or next to catch Panache Theatrical Productions’ “Heathers the Musical.” Theatre-goers who are familiar with the edge and zeal of shows that City Stage used to produce (“Reefer Madness,” “Pot Mom,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Avenue Q”) will find something comparably cheeky to wet their whistle.

Based on the 1989 cult film—perhaps the first of the mean-girls flicks to gain a loyal following, despite its bust at the box office—“Heathers” is about three of the most popular girls at Ohio’s Westerburg High. They’re all named Heather, and they belittle yet somehow beguile in their perfectly put-together pomp and snark. They take outcast Veronica Sawyer under their wing, thanks to her righteous ability to forge handwriting on a hall pass. Problem is: Veronica’s actually a decent human, who doesn’t want to be a part of the social hierarchy that high school mandates.

However, she is pressured by “fitting in” just as much as the next outlier. And so she goes along with some of the awful antics the Heathers play—including a cruel setup on Veronica’s childhood, overweight friend, Martha Dunnstock (who the Heathers nickname “Dumptruck”).

Then comes along the school’s bad boy in black, JD, with whom Veronica falls in love. A rebel who has a penchant for quoting Baudelaire, he tricks his girlfriend into a grandiose plan to eliminate the popular bullies in school who do nothing but weigh down society with mean mediocrity and stupidity. And so an underhanded killing spree begins, masked to look like an epidemic of suicides. It sends the community into a tailspin of horror—and also a touch of national notoriety, as the teachers and students sensationalize the horrific happenings on news channels.

It’s hard to take a beloved movie about teen angst and do it justice on a small stage. More so, to do it as a musical seems an even greater challenge. But in the case of “Heathers,” it’s a perfect fit. The writers of the book, music and lyrics—Laurence O’Keefe (“Legally Blonde: The Musical”) and Kevin Murphy (“Reefer Madness”)—clearly understand how injecting camp into a story of this nature also impacts its message. Somehow, bullying is a topic we’ve become desensitized to in this day and age, perhaps even more so with our current POTUS and his administration constantly marginalizing groups of minorities.To be able to tackle the message with an over-the-top, off-kilter approach, as heard in songs like “My Dead Gay Son,” lifts an attempt at proselytization with a substitution of humor. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, sure; yet, it’s so overblown, it’s impossible not to laugh. We know cackling about suicide is no joke, nor is being rejected by your parents for being gay. However, extremes are at work in the musical that make it approachable in its irony—despite guiltmares it may induce.

Speaking of guiltmares, Hunter Wyatt as Veronica Sawyer carries hers like she’s wearing her heart on her book sleeve: It’s noticeable to anyone who attempts to read. Or anyone who can see ghosts, including those who follow her around and haunt her conscience for homicide. Having to follow the movie’s famed Winona Ryder in the role would be intimidating for any actress. Wyatt owns it with her own quirk. She also comes across as more empathetic than the onscreen version—something needed of the role to make her plight believable between wanting to fit in and wanting to be kind.

Wyatt’s voice is powerful, as heard in “Prom or Hell” and “Seventeen.” Sometimes it overshadows those with whom she sings, except with Ty Myatt who plays her psychopathic love interest, JD. Myatt and Wyatt counter balance each other’s power in “Pain in My Path” and “Dead Girl Walking”—the latter of which is a standout salacious scene about losing one’s virginity. Myatt’s JD has less of an everyday chum vibe, as Christian Slater’s character elicited in the movie. I like Myatt’s version better. It’s one of the problems I had with the movie to begin with: I never believed Slater to be inherently corrupt. I believe Myatt completely. He has a rigidity to his stance and cold demeanor to his interpersonal connections that at closer inspection feel vacant—something pyschopaths need to go to the extreme. “Freeze Your Brain” is Myatt’s best song—a great metaphor between fighting change and accepting consistent letdowns, even if slurped through a frozen drink at the 7-11.

The Heathers are so exceptional, especially the leader of the pack, Heather Chandler, as played by Alexa Knippenberg. Every eyeroll and hair flip she gives comes packed with intent to intimidate. “Candy Store” is the popular, privileged girl’s anthem. Its lyrics pang the gut’s visceral reaction to laugh: “Drinkin’ hard / Maxin’ Dad’s credit card / I like! Skippin’ gym / Scaring her / Screwing him.”

Marie Long as Heather Duke nails the resting bitch face to no avail; she’s second in command and doesn’t like it. Long punctuates the air with a rabid desire to take the lead, even in her “woman of few words” demeanor. I loved watching her reactions to everything going on around her onstage. It said as much as those talking in the spotlight.

Kire Stenson as Heather McNamara would be the “nicest” of all the Heathers. Though she’ll trade in her date rape for another’s in a heartbeat, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand human decency on some level. Stenson brings a softness to the character to pillow the hard-nosed indifference swirling about.

Such apathy comes most heavily from my favorite duo of the show: the jocks, Kurt Kelly (Joe Basquill) and Mathis Turner (Ram Sweeney). I could watch these characters always. Every one of Basquill and Turners’ interactions left my cheeks in pain from laughter—the kind that had drool falling from my mouth because I could barely catch my breath or contain myself. They perfectly capture dopes in letter jackets. Every vulgar statement and grotesque suggestion or asinine comment is filled with an attempt to insult. But, honestly, they’re such dumb-dumbs, it would feel even more insulting to allow their idiocy malice. Instead, laughing back at them is more appropriate. Anyone who doesn’t find a scream of a good time in “Blue” seriously has no sense of humor. While the lyrics are pretty basic in the song, the physical comedy from Basquill and Turner nail hormonal rage. By far, it’s the best performance of the night.

The music in the show is astounding. Panache put Adrian Varnam in charge of the six-piece band, including Denice Hopper and Julia Ross on piano, Dan Gaudinier on guitar, Derek Lane on bass, Benjamin Baldwin on drums, and Varnam on violin. They carry multiple genres, though it’s primarily a rock musical. I especially love some of the clear ‘80s pop elements as heard in “Big Fun,” which seems eerily parallel to Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time.” Honestly, though, the opening lyrics—“freak, slut, burnout, poser, bug eyes, lard ass”—of the first song, “It’s Been Three Weeks,” will grasp the audience’s attention immediately. The funniest moments happen in one-liners and zingers that really hit the mark.

The costuming of the show, from the monochromatic skirts, blazers and tops of the Heathers, to the puff paint shirt of Martha, solidify the era. The bare set, utilized by lit cubes easily maneuvered around the small space and punctuated by onscreen images, work to the advantage of the frantic energy often exposed from the characters. It makes the audience focus on their interactions, their words and their inner voices. It’s powerful, even poignant, despite being entrenched in amusement. Considering the original screenplay was written before Columbine, social media and cell phones, it feels even more relevant today rather than dated. But the reality of a show about teenage bullying is it resonates no matter time or place.

“I wonder if high-school students watching this now feel any discomfort,” I mused, noting various outlets of teasing they have to contend with—not just face-to-face in the school cafeteria.

“Well, I feel uncomfortable watching some of it,” he responded with a laugh. “As if I am reliving my own high-school years—and I’m 50 years out of high school. But this is excellent.”

Heathers the Musical
Mar. 23-26, 30-Apr. 2, 8 p.m. or Sun., 3 p.m.
Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $20-$25

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