The musical of the cult black comedy horror-suspense film Heathers is more wicked fun than you expect it to be, even more than it has any right to be, if musical theatre history is any barometer. Usually the musicals based on these B-movies (with the notable exception of Little Shop of Horrors, which started the trend) are inferior adaptations that default to adding camp; but adapters Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe (who wrote book, music and lyrics in tandem) have known enough to let the camp of Daniel Waters’ original screenplay speak for itself, and play the story out for real stakes.
Real stakes, I hasten to add, are not humorless stakes—dialogue, lyrics and even music are a witty, tasty evocation of Midwestern high school life (and the pop music that would inform its vocabulary) of 1989. Without spoiling too much for those who may not know the film going in (and I didn’t), it tells the tale of Veronica Sawyer (Barrett Wilbert Weed), a girl teen who wants acceptance into the inner-circle of the ultra-hip, the controlling and opinion-making Heathers…which she gets…but discovers the personal cost is too high. And then discovers that the cost of getting out is even higher.
One of the earliest signs that you’re in good hands with the creative team (including director Andy Fickman) is that in the wake of an assured, unambiguous set of opening images, with narrative and music kicking in to set the tone quickly, the audience—that part of them hip to the film—cheers as each of the main characters is introduced. Not just out of recognition; but out of some collectively sensed gestalt that the iconography is right, that the beloved property is going to be well-represented. Given the nature of Heathers that’s a response no other musical is ever likely to have…but in its self-defined context, it’s major. And the show then proceeds to live up to it.
Excellently cast (Ryan McCartan, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Elle McLemore, Alice Lee, Katie Ladner, Evan Todd and Jon Eidson all deserve mention) and designed to within an inch of its life, Heathers, though off-Broadway, is the Broadway-scale sleeper of the season, and very possibly the best musical of the season too.
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