Gently, with a chainsaw
“Welcome to my candy store,” sing the Heathers, that beautiful and terrifying clique of alpha females who rule Westerberg High. Just like Skittles, these three “popular” girls are glossy, artificially colored and probably bad for you. As the reigning triumvirate at the top of Westerberg’s social hierarchy, they wield power with a ruthlessness and cunning that could make a dictator sit up and take notice.
I appreciate the candy store reference, because for me, any chance to experience “Heathers” makes me feel like a kid in one. I’m a fan both of the classic 1988 movie and the 2014 off-Broadway musical adaptation. (I already got a chance to revel in the show when Selma Arts Center offered the local stage premiere last summer.) I’m a big enough fan of the material that I’m going to laugh out loud every time I hear “Grow up, Heather, Bulimia’s so ‘87.”
Does that mean that when going into the new Fresno State production of “Heathers: The Musical,” I would be hyper-critical? Or more forgiving?
I think a little of both. I have definite, deep-rooted views on how this audaciously dark satirical romp steeped in the zeitgeist of the late 1980s — famed for its memorable teen lingo, it’s an experience that manages to be both acerbically funny and downright grim in terms of human nature — should unfold. At the same time, I love the show so much that getting to see it with a new directorial vision is exciting in itself.
The Fresno State production offers some great student performances, a bright and colorful production design, and a snappy, vigorous and emphatic commitment to the movie’s original mindset. My biggest fear when “Heathers” became a musical was that it would lose its unflinching satirical bite, and I was happy when it didn’t. Carrying that tradition forward, this production doesn’t flinch, either. (For those easily offended by explicit lyrics and even more so by finding laughs in such social issues as teen suicide, you might want to motor right out of that line at the box office.)
Among the attractions: Director Brad Myers finds a fresh approach to the character of Veronica Sawyer, the show’s central character, who is elevated to her high school’s highest levels when she is plucked from obscurity by the three popular Heathers and absorbed into their ruling clique.
‘Heathers: The Musical,’ through May 13, Fresno State John Wright Theatre. $20, $18 seniors, $12 students
In Kindle Lynn Cowger’s hands, this Veronica at the beginning is more of a loser than in previous incarnations — a frizzy-haired, desultorily dressed, brain-slash-nerd desperate for a bump up the social ladder. (That’s always been the premise, but both Winona Ryder and Barrett Wilbert Weed, who portrayed Veronica in the film and Off-Broadway, respectively, never quite captured the sense of utter drabness that Cowger is able to pull off.) When Veronica makes her social ascent in this version, it seems more tenuous. She teeters at times in her commitment to life at the top, which puts a different spin on her journey.
This slightly less heroic Veronica helps spice up the production’s (twisted) love story as well, when she falls for her school’s mysterious new transfer student, J.D. (a well-cast William Aaron Bishop). As he coaxes her toward the dark side, which includes the pair’s involvement in a series of deaths among the student body, there’s something raw about their chemistry together, an example of two “damaged” souls connecting in an impactful way.
At the same time, I’ll admit it was hard for me at first to connect with and appreciate Veronica 2.0 because of my preconceived notions of how that character should be. But I grew to like it as the production progressed.
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I saw the show on opening night, and I felt something was lacking in terms of the energy and drive of the show in the first few numbers. I wanted the ensemble to crackle with confidence. The cast seemed a bit tentative. But as the first act unfolded, I began to pick up more certainty and assurance, and the second act perked up considerably.
The three Heathers (Hannah Huyck as Ms. Chandler, Jana Price as Ms. Duke and Lauren Folland as Ms. McNamara) have a slick sense of ensemble, looking very much at home in Elizabeth Payne’s excellent color-coordinated costumes. Hyuck smoothly towers with a queen-bee bitchiness, while Price (who has an impressive sense of her character’s physicality) has a nice edge as the hardened Heather and Folland explores a more tender, brittle side.
Kai Di Mino is a standout as the obnoxious football jock Ram Sweeney, offering sharp comic timing and an amusingly complex relationship with fellow jock Kurt Kelly (played with finesse by Jacob Wilson). Their rendition of “Blue,” a song whose subject matter would qualify it for an opening number at a pornography trade fair, is a comic highlight. Choreographer Michael Christopher Flores’ amusing moves in the number, including the stylized wiping of tears by two of the Heathers, adds to the distinctiveness of the experience.
Amalie Larsen, a veteran member of the theater community, pours it on vocally in the number “Shine A Light” to great effect. She’s joined in the “adult” roles by two very talented student performers: Aaron Pierce, who plays, among other characters, Ram’s father; and Gian Console, who tackles several roles as well, including a memorable turn as Kurt’s father. That both Pierce and Console pulled off such an age leap with such aplomb is impressive.
Myers does something else in terms of direction that is quite effective: He gives members of the ensemble, who are designated by “types” (the “beleaguered geek,” the “preppy stud,” “the hipster dork,” etc.) memorable little moments to stand out. One of my favorite moments: Nwachukwu Oputa, as the Rebelette With a Cause, exclaims “Heather touching me!” in one song. It could have been a throwaway bit, but Myers frames with a full pause by both singers and orchestra, giving it a big impact.
In terms of vocals, Cowger and Bishop belt out some strong moments (their “Seventeen” is a highlight). The standout vocal performance comes from Thuy Duong, who plays the pivotal role of Martha Dunnstock, the picked-upon overweight girl. Duong’s emotional performance of “Kindergarten Boyfriend” is terrific. True story: When I saw the show off-Broadway, I thought that this song could actually have been cut. This time around, it became one of my favorites. Duong manages to both soar vocally and at the same time keep a brittle, jagged edge to the performance. I thought it was wonderful.
But … I was also distracted by the attempt to make Duong, who is slightly built, appear to weigh more to match the physicality of the role. The “fat suit” she wears looks just plain awkward. I’m normally a fan of all sorts of “blind” casting — color, gender, body type — but this just didn’t work for me.
That’s one of the few blips in the look and sound of the production, however. Jeff Hunter’s set, which includes three arched doors that add an almost religious effect, like stained-glass windows, works nicely with Liz Waldman’s lighting design, which ranges from perky colors to muted dystopian. Scott Hancock’s small live orchestra is top-notch, and thanks to sound designer Regina Harris, I could hear nearly every lyric perfectly. I liked all of Karina Rodriguez’s hair and makeup design except for Duong’s, which I think is a little clownish and not true to the character: Martha can be oblivious but she also has a certain quiet dignity. Payne’s costumes are a highlight, each one an allusion to the source material but with an original flair.
And another shout out is deserved for Flores’ choreography, which in numbers such as “Big Fun” and “Shine a Light” really, well, shines.
Over the years, people have asked why I love “Heathers” so much, and it comes down to this: It captures a sense of the human condition that might not always be pretty but rings true. I like satirical comedy that makes you laugh and squirm at the same time. Yet the show isn’t dank and ugly. At the show’s heart, Veronica really just wants to make her school a better place. For all its meanness (and body count), the show is bracingly optimistic. Veronica’s words in the final number, a reprise of “Seventeen,” put it best:
Listen up kids, war is over, brand new sheriff’s come to town
We are done with acting evil, we will lay our weapons down
We’re all damaged, we’re all frightened, we’re all freaks but that’s alright
We’ll endure it, we’ll survive it, Martha are you free tonight?
I can’t promise no more Heathers, high school may not ever end, still I miss you,
I’d be honored, if you’d let me be your friend.
Forget about life being a box of chocolates and all that sentimental stuff. This is the kind of candy store I want to shop in.
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