Every musical adaptation of a cult movie confronts the same double bind: how do you please fans of the original film while at the same time creating something that works as live theater? Heathers the Musical stays true to the 1989 flick starring Christian Slater and Winona Ryder, and even improves on its plot in certain key ways. It also provides plenty of airtime to the various catchphrases that made the movie famous by stretching what were once witty throwaways into entire production numbers. While the coarse vocabulary and teenage bad behavior featured in this 1980s satire may cause those who cringe easily to squirm, judging from the enthusiastic response of Saturday night’s sold-out crowd, that’s not typically what is happening at Center Stage. Through multiple strong performances, astute direction, and some standout songs, this Out of the Box production of Heathers takes loyal fans and newcomers alike back to Westerberg High with a sharpened perspective that’s thoroughly stage-worthy in 2015.
In the opening number, “Beautiful,” Veronica Sawyer (Samantha Eve) puts the “mean girls” premise in a new light. The Heathers aren’t just mean, they’re also beautiful, and beauty is something that everyone can appreciate, even if they can’t completely relate or hope to compete. Along with dreams of utopia, the generalized exhilaration of adolescent beauty conjures taboo thoughts, as when Veronica admits in the cleverly staged, slow-motion “Fight for Me,” that even though she knows it’s wrong, watching guys fight…well, you can probably guess the rest.
Coming to the character of J.D. after both Columbine and Christian Slater can’t be easy, but Trevor Shor doesn’t seem fazed in the least by playing a black trench-coated serial killer. On “Freeze Your Brain,” his solo in the first act, he comes across as warm and natural—kind of ironic when you consider that he’s singing about a Slurpee. As head Heather Heather Chandler, Madelyn Adams proves that a dead Heather can be even more powerful than the living one ever was. The ensemble number “The Me Inside of Me” celebrates her hidden (i.e. non-existent) sensitive side as she looks on mockingly from beyond the grave. While it is Veronica’s skill as a forger of suicide notes that creates this mass misperception, it’s the performance that sells it, and Adams pops up in some great places as dead Heather Chandler.
The story’s not all told through the teens. Todd Tickner and Jon Zuber are clearly having a ball with their twist on what is perhaps the movie’s best-known catch phrase, and in the key role of Ms. Fleming, the hippie teacher who’s always ready to heal, Julie Anne Ruggieri is just right. Doubling as Big Bud Dean, J.D.’s psycho deconstructionist dad, Zuber works well with Shor to revive the original film’s amusing take on father-son conversation style.
Two solos by sidekicks stood out in the second half. Heather McNamara may have the lowest rank in the Heather-archy, but with “Lifeboat,” Katherine Bottoms put her at the top for one golden moment. Likewise, as Martha Dunstock, Janelle Phaneuf delivered the evening’s best ballad, “Kindergarten Boyfriend.” As Heather Duke, Courtney Daniels earned the red scrunchie by staying true to the mean girls’ code to the end, thus keeping the tension where it should be, between the Heathers and all the basic mortals down below them. Ultimately, that’s probably the best way to enjoy this show—with the same never back down attitude. Life’s a bitch, so Heather says: relax.