Melbourne Premiere: HEATHERS THE MUSICAL

Black comedy classic into a fantastically biting and bitchy musical

By Caitlin McGrane

Before I went to see Heathers: The Musical I had vowed to myself that I would watch the cult movie so I was prepared, but I ultimately didn’t, and more’s the better, as I feel it would have utterly ruined the fresh first-time delight if I had. That said, there is still plenty for fans of the film to love – those classic lines (that even I knew) delivered with just enough homage to avoid pastiche. Heathers is a twisted classic story of high school popularity, love, sex. And murder. Written for the stage by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, the show delivers acerbic wit and darkly poignant comedy in spades.

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Veronica Sawyer (Hilary Cole) is a Senior at Westerberg High School in Ohio; in desperation to make her final year more bearable, Veronica asks the eponymous popular girl gang, the Heathers, if they can help her by just letting her associate with them. Veronica falls in line with the Heathers, until she meets broody Baudelaire-quoting heartthrob J.D. (Stephen Madsen) whereupon things start to go slightly pear-shaped… Cole and Madsen both inhabited their roles wholly and convincingly: their chemistry positively palpable.

The Heathers comprise of ‘mythic bitch’ Heather Chandler (Lucy Maunder), neurotic bulimic Heather Duke (Hannah Fredericksen), and bland cheerleader Heather McNamara (Rebecca Hetherington). All three performers are exceptionally funny, but Fredericksen really stole the show as Heather Duke whose ascension to Queen B was hilariously unhinged. Vincent Hooper and Jakob Ambrose looked like they were having heaps of fun on stage as the lewd and cringe-inducing jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly. Lauren McKenna positively shone as Ms Fleming, whose culturally appropriative Afro-inspired dress and hair were so bad they were genius. It would also be remiss not to mention Mitchell Hicks‘ impressive work as J.D.’s unfathomably repulsive father ‘Big Bud’; his every appearance on stage made me want to run screaming from the auditorium. The other members of the ensemble cast – Sage Douglas, Heather Manley and Stephen McDowell were all excellent, and provided the much-needed pace for many of the song-and-dance numbers.

The only area in which the production was let down was in sound design; while director Trevor Ashley and musical director Bev Kennedy did a wonderful job bringing the musical to the Arts Centre stage, on opening night the sound quality in the theatre was not successfully monitored or moderated. This meant that while the cast were performing it was virtually impossible to hear what they were sing-speaking over the noise of the band. This aside, the rest of the production coordination was outstanding.

I therefore thoroughly enjoyed what I could hear of the songs, particularly the LGBT-inspired number delivered by Ram and Kurt’s fathers. Despite being mostly unable to discern the lyrics, I still had a fantastic time; I couldn’t care less what they were singing about half the time because the performances were making me laugh, which is what I wanted. The melodies weren’t original, or even particularly catchy, but every song simultaneously captured the spirit of the 80s, as well as the neuroses of high school to which we can all relate.

Well-thought out set design (Emma Vine), lighting design (Gavan Swift) and choreography (Cameron Mitchell) were essential to support the cast while they careered about on stage. Angela White’s costumes were exceptional and instantly transported us back to 1988.

Heathers had the audience – many of whom were no doubt hard-to-please movie fans – whooping and rolling in the aisles for so much of the performance that any glitches or technical missteps went entirely unnoticed. Indeed, such was the excitement of the ladies in the row in front of me that when J.D. made a brief appearance in the audience one of them quietly screamed, ‘Ooh Julie! Look who you’ve got next to you!’ And I think that just about summed up the experience – it really did make me giddy with high school excitement, albeit with rather more murderous inclinations. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Heathers is showing at the Arts Centre on Southbank until 22 May 2016. For tickets and more information visit: http://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2016/musicals/heathers-the-musical

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