Monday, March 07, 2016

Despite Strong Performances and Quality Score, Difficult Light/Dark Balance Makes 'Heathers' Musical Hard to Embrace -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Heathers: The Musical
Kokandy Productions
at Theater Wit
Thru April 24, 2016

It's likely that I arrived at Theater Wit for Heathers: The Musical with far less affinity for its source movie than many other patrons.

I have no particular disdain for the 1989 film, often referenced as a cult classic, but saw it once long ago and haven't given it much thought since.

Although I wouldn't have been able to recall many plot points prior to seeing them enacted onstage, I recognize that the black comedy has had a certain caché for the way it satirized high school subdivisions with a darkness far beyond the teenage challenges, popularity pecking order and insecurities depicted in John Hughes films.

With its titular clique of mean girls, Heathers has lent its name to the lexicon, denoting haughty and abrasive young women--or those simply perceived as such--who are paradoxically among the most popular and despised kids in high school.

Without meaning to give away specifics about the movie or the musical, Heathers wound up taking its depiction of high school hell to deadly extremes.

I can't recall my reaction to the film's body count, but at the time I saw it only the "I Don't Like Mondays" San Diego schoolyard killings years before could have possibly come to mind.

Sadly, we live in a different world now, and while it doesn't mean satire, dark comedy or even macabre fun is off limits as entertainment, fictional high school murders and massacres bring far graver connotations and recollections.

Certainly, those who initially developed Heathers into a musical--the music, lyrics and book are credited to Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, while Andy Fickman originally directed it Off-Broadway in 2014--must have recognized the current landscape, and in the mock high school newspaper that cleverly serves as the program for Kokandy Productions' Chicago Premiere at Theater Wit, director James Beaudry writes eloquently about the delicate balance demanded in getting the tone right, today.

My admiration for the attempt is estimable, and there are many terrific aspects to this rendition of Heathers as a musical.

As Veronica Sawyer--a pretty but uncertain girl who joins the "Heathers," played by Winona Ryder in the movie--Courtney Mack is wonderful, both quite engagingly likable and well-sung.

Clad in primary colors, Jacquelyne Jones, Haley Jane Schafer and Rochelle Therrien do a good job in embodying the generally loathsome Heathers--surnamed Chandler, Duke and McNamara.

Chris Ballou well-handles the black trenchcoated Christian Slater role as J.D., Veronica's bad boy love interest, and among a high-spirited cast of 20, Teressa LaGamba makes for an empathetic Martha, Veronica's overweight and outcast best friend.

As I was hoping based on O'Keefe's previous scores for the Legally Blonde and Bat Boy musicals--both of which I very much like--there are several fine songs, including the opening "Beautiful," "Candy Store," "Dead Girl Walking," "Seventeen," "Shine a Light" and "My Kindergarten Boyfriend."

In this high school musical, a couple numbers are too sophomoric, a song called "My Dead Gay Son" works musically but still made me cringe, and sonic references to Queen's "We Will Rock You," Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" and Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting" felt more derivative than simply sly homages.

But with the songs largely being upbeat, with a fair amount of ebullience mixed with insight and even poignancy, the dark turn the storyline takes--in essentially following the movie, per Wikipedia and reviews of past productions--forces a balance I found discomfiting.

I realize that the musical's creators likely needed to stay true to the movie's narrative, and I don't think I'm so squeamish as to dismiss macabre subject matter as automatically out-of-bounds.

My fondness for Ride the Cyclone last year at Chicago Shakespeare Theater suggests that I'm capable of being entirely charmed by young-skewing musicals with a unsettling share of teenage morbidity.

And while I can't say I found Heathers to be as enjoyable as I wanted, I believe director Beaudry, choreographer Sawyer Smith, music director Kory Danielson and the fine cast led by Mack and Ballou have done everything in their power to leverage the script and songs as best they could.

My critique is about my overall experience in viewing Heathers onstage, but there is little I can fault about this particular production.

As a musical, and maybe even more so within this staging, Heathers has a lot going for it--including a fantastic slow-motion fight scene, fine singing throughout, a rocking score and more--and it's quite possible teens, twenty-somethings and those a bit older who have long-favored the film will find much to like.

I did, but ultimately had a hard time tapping my toes amid tales of teens being murdered, as off-putting as the victims might have been.

And while every musical need not be a toe-tapping good time to be terrific, the calibration between light and dark in Heathers onstage just felt like too much of a misfit.

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