USC’s entirely student-run Musical Theatre Repertory kicks off its twelfth season with Heathers: The Musical, a screen-to-stage adaptation that may not work as well as the similarly-themed Carrie: The Musical, but nonetheless provides plenty of tongue-in-cheek musical darkness for its talented Trojan performers and behind-the-scenes team.
Moviegoers (and Netfilx subscribers) will recognize Heathers’ trio of identically-monikered mean-girl protagonists, their initially devoted protégée Veronica, and high school homicidal antihero J.D. from screenwriter Daniel Walters’ 1988 cult flick Heathers, and both movie and musical tell essentially the same twisted tale.
Seventeen-year-old Veronica Sawyer’s (Julianna Keller) talent for forgery (report cards, permission slips, absence notes) scores her a place at the most coveted lunch table at Westerburg High, the one occupied by Heathers Chandler (Ali Getz), McNamara (Addy Stafford), and Duke (Lucy Grebin), though this means pretty much abandoning her childhood bestie Martha Dunnstock (Ashley Busenlener), cruelly nicknamed Martha Dumptruck for reasons of avoirdupois.
Only trenchcoat-sporting Westerburg newbie Jason Dean (Sean Soper) sees through the bullying and the bullshit, and before long J.D. has Veronica not just sharing Slurpees and sex (her first taste of both) but serving hungover Queen Bee Heather Chandler a Draino-laced hair-of-the-dog that sends her straight to heaven (or more likely hell).
Let the killing spree begin.
While Heathers The Movie maintained a nihilistic tone throughout (and both Carries, movie and musical, did the same), Heathers The Musical (book, music, and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy) opts for a more playful tone, one that might disappoint or even anger cult cinephiles, but works for those willing to see Heathers in a different light (or at least throughout its tonally unified first act).
More problematic is the juxtaposition of second-act gravity like Heather McNamara’s anguished “Lifeboat” (“I float on a boat in a raging black ocean”) with the homolicious “My Dead Gay Son” (“I know God has a reason for each mountain and each flower, and why he chose to let our boys get busy in the shower.”)
Still, tonal irregularities aside, Heathers: The Musical proves a crowd-pleaser, and with almost as many teen roles as Grease, there aren’t many musicals out there with more age-appropriate parts for college kids, that is assuming campus higher-ups don’t mind more than a bit of R-rated raunch on their school stages.
Like virtually the entire Heathers cast, year-out-of-high-school director Jack McCarthy is making his MTR debut, and an auspicious one it is in a show whose demands would tax a director of twice his age and experience. (The use of cafeteria trays and a slo-mo fight sequence are particularly inspired.)
The entire Heathers cast show off promise and punch, creating colorful characters, harmonizing like pros to Sasha Bartol’s expert musical direction, and dancing up a storm to Sophie Thompson’s energetic, imaginative choreography.
Leading lady Keller gives Veronica spunk and heart, generating plenty of sparks opposite sexy danger-boy-next-door Soper, and all three Heathers (Getz, Stafford, and Grebin) give your favorite TV or movie mean girls a run for their daddies’ money.
Tristan McIntyre and Patrick Olsen make for a jocktastic pair of not-so-smart football bullies, Busenlener has us rooting for poor picked-on Martha, and Banjo Edwards is a trippy delight as guidance counselor Miss Fleming.
Multitalented ensemble members shine in tracks that have them alternating between teen and adult characters—Holly Cronin (Goth Girl, Cheerleader), dance captain Damaris Eison (Cheerleader), Tyler Ellis (Ram’s Dad, Preppy Stud), Taylor Kass (Young Republican, Reporter), Amy Melendrez (Goth Girl, Cheerleader), Samuel Miller (Veronica’s Dad, Geek), Nina Nelson (Stoner Chick), Caitlin Oden (Coach, Cheerleader), David Shadman (J.D.’s Dad Big Bud, Cop 2, Faculty), Michael Takla (Kurt’s Dad, Principal), Ian Tighe (Hipster Dork), and Andrea Torre (Veronica’s Mom), with special snaps to Ellis and Takla for the show-stopping “My Dead Gay Son.”
Bartol’s keyboard gifts anchor Heathers’ Grade-A live orchestra, completed by Cyrus Elia, Jeff Frantom, Ian Hubbell, Mika Nafshun-Bone, and Emma Reinhart.
Scenic designer Mallory Gabbard’s cleverly designed set morphs into multiple varied locales, Ellie Solomon’s costumes are nostalgic, big-shouldered ‘80s treats, and Ethan Zeitman provides a just-right sound mix, aided and abetted by Justus Bradshaw’s lighting and Soloman and Gabbard’s props.
Kudos go out too to stage management team Lexie Chu, Carrie Hiramatsu, Sophie Pesetti, and Jamie Salinger, assistant director Sarah Hahm, assistant choreographer Harrison Poe, and many more given deserved program credit but too numerous to mention here.
I discovered USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory way back in 2008 and nearly nine years later find it going stronger than ever with a whole new generation of Trojan talent bringing shows as eclectic as Heathers: The Musical and this coming January’s Sondheim masterpiece Company to pro-competitive life.
From today through Sunday, Heathers: The Musical makes for high-school homocidelectable fun.
Massman Theatre at USC.
October 20, 2016
Photos: Alexandra Chu