A cast and production team only just entering their 20s proves a particularly fine fit—and more than up to the task of bringing Heathers: The Musical to murderously crowd-pleasing life at Thousand Oaks’ Hillcrest Center For The Arts.

 Carly Jean Paul stars as seventeen-year-old Veronica Sawyer, whose 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 (Karlee Squires), McNamara (Kate Fruehling), and Duke (Shayde Bridges), even if this means abandoning her childhood bestie, the cruelly nicknamed Martha Dumptruck (Francesca Barletta).

 Only trenchcoat-sporting Westerburg newbie Jason Dean (Jared Price) 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 hell.

Let the killing spree begin.

 Moviegoers (and Netfilx subscribers) will recognize Heathers’ trio of identically-monikered mean-girl protagonists, their initially devoted protégée Veronica, and incendiary antihero J.D. from screenwriter Daniel Walters’ 1988 darkly comedic cult classic, though unlike the movie’s nonstop nihilism, Heathers: The Musical (book, music, and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy) opts for a campier tone, songs like the epic show-opening “Beautiful,” the girl-groupy “Candy Store,” and the bawdy, ballsy “Blue” proving as catchy and clever as 21-century show tunes get, if more than a bit (too) reminiscent of the score O’Keefe co-wrote for the Broadway hit Legally Blonde.

 There aren’t many musicals out there with more age-appropriate parts for kids barely out of (or still in) college than Heathers, making it a perfect choice for the Young Artists Ensemble alumni who call themselves YA4Ever.

22-year-old Timothy Reese directs with the imagination and flair of someone twice his age or older, his all-around splendid cast putting their own distinctive stamps on characters made famous on the silver screen by a very young Christian Slater, Winona Ryder, Shannon Doherty, and more.

 Leading lady Paul anchors the production with a star-making performance as spunky, big-hearted, big-voiced Veronica; Price’s J.D. oozes the reptilian sex appeal of a young anarchist in the making; and blonde bombshells Squires, Fruehling, and Bridges ace their mean girl roles to do Regina George and her entourage proud.

 Jack Powell and Tal Toker score ample laughs as hilarious dumb jocks Kurt and Ram, Barletta is both spunky and heartbreaking as poor picked-on Martha, and Hannah Rachel Tamkin delivers the trippy goods as in-need-of-guidance counselor Miss Fleming.

 Supporting players Noel Canada (Preppy Jock), Megan Chew (New Wave Girl), Jack Cleary (Beleaguered Geek), Wyatt Eaton (Hipster Dork), Michelle Johnson (Young Republicanette), and Stephanie Rojo (Stoner Chick) not only create clearly defined high school archetypes, they sing and dance with talent, effervescence, and verve, kudos shared by musical director Tyler Stouffer and choreographer Sarah Fanella, who serves up one Hi-NRG production number after another.

Last but not least, by casting the age-appropriate Ryan Deremer and William Carmichael in older-adult roles, director Reese avoids the suspension-of-disbelief a student production would require, the duo stopping the show with a hilarious “My Dead Gay Son.”

A pair of powerful dramatic solos score vocal points for Freuhling (“Lifeboat”) and Barletta (“Kindergarten Boyfriend”) as do Paul’s power pipes throughout, director Reese meriting his own kudos for navigating Heathers: The Musical’s potentially problematic tonal shifts.

 Reese’s ¾-round high school gym scenic design does indeed (in the director-designer’s own words) immerse the audience in the “dark pep rally” that is Heathers, though somewhat at the expense of sightlines for those without a head-on view.

Nick Sheppard lights Reese’s set with Vegas pizzazz (the spotlights-through-haze effects are particularly striking), costume designer Jenna Friedman, hair designer Victoria Reese, and makeup designer Alex Abrams merit high marks for transforming a 21-century cast into 1980s icons, and Lauren Alexander provides plenty of just-right properties.

 Stouffer conducts a pitch-perfect live orchestra (Marco Bohler, Matthew Case, Allegra Edelnant, David Galvan, Zach Ragan, Gohan Ruiz, and Andrew Shousha), with sound designer Tamarra Sylber providing a mostly successful mix of amped vocals and instrumentals, the former only occasionally overpowered by the latter.

Heathers: The Musical is produced by Natalie DeSavia. Mariah Tobin is assistant director. Peyton Pugh is stage manager. Scott Chew is technical director.

A terrific showcase for its very young, very talented cast and creative crew, YA4Ever’s Heathers: The Musical proves a tasty, tuneful winner, and more than worth the drive north from L.A. to Thousand Oaks.

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Hillcrest Center For The Arts, 403 W Hillcrest Dr, Thousand Oaks. Through January 14. Thursday and Friday at 8:00. Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00. Sunday at 2:00.

–Steven Stanley
January 6, 2018
Photos: Paul Cranmer


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