Though a musical that makes references to date rape, bulimia, child abuse and features not only multiple teen fatalities, but the prospect of a blown up school seems like an unlikely choice for a riotous night of comedy. However, there’s at least as many laughs as there are pathos in Heathers: The Musical. Based on the 1989 film, this zany high school musical is at once achingly earnest and outrageously risque, making for a slightly uneven but ultimately satisfying night of theatre in its current incarnation at the Lake Worth Playhouse.
The plot kicks off when high school misfit Veronica Sawyer is plucked out of obscurity by the clique of three girls who rule the school, all of whom happen to be named “Heather.” As Veronica begins to lose touch with her values and compassion as she tries to assimilate to their bullying ways, she also begins to fall under the spell of mysterious loner new kid JD, who pushes Veronica’s initially innocent attempts to get revenge into something far more sinister.
Though these central dynamics are a bit slow to establish themselves, which contributes to the problem of the play feeling overlong more generally, there are plenty of hilarious moments along the way. The outrageousness of Heathers’ black comedy is by far the most memorable aspect of both the original movie and this relatively faithful adaptation, but the absurdity of it all is predictably amped up to broader extremes to suit the musical comedy genre, with often amusing results.
For instance, the memorable movie line “I love my dead gay son” becomes a full-on and wildly flamboyant musical number of the same name. In another stand-out sequence, the Act One number “The Me Inside Of Me,” a student who met an untimely end looks on from the afterlife as the remaining students celebrate her memory, which is both a rousing laugh riot and a subtle satirical attack on the saint-like status often bestowed on the victims of teenage suicide.
Of course, some of Heathers’ darker humor plays a little differently in a post-Columbine world—the original film was released ten years before the tragedy, which itself heralded the end of an era in which the prospect of mass violence at the schoolyard seemed fantastically escapist rather than an almost common element of the high school landscape.
But this update deals relatively well with the potentially unfortunate implications of making light of a hypothetical massacre by integrating a somewhat more sincere attitude into the story’s bleak landscape, with softer numbers giving us glimpses into the heads of off-kilter characters who most of us likely find more relatable than the pristine popular crowd.
Though the inclusion of these relatively frequent ballads amidst the campy fun is part of what slows down the show, especially in the case of more peripheral characters granted dubiously necessary solos, it also makes for a fascinating fleshing out of JD and Veronica’s romance and inner worlds. Both characters show their sensitive sides in numbers like “Freeze Your Brain,” “Fight For Me,” “Seventeen,” and “Our Love Is God,” as lines in group numbers like the opening “Beautiful” strikingly illuminate not only the cutthroat atmosphere of high school but the ensuing near-universal desperation that tends to attend the adolescent years:
Send me a sign, God!
But by asking us to empathize with some characters while cheerily asking us to revel in the demise of others, and by gradually turning from cartoonish off-kilter satire to an almost overly sentimental resolution, Heathers never quite resolves its tonal inconsistencies into a coherent vision.
In the end though, this musical is still probably a more honest look at the dark undercurrents of high school life than can be found in most more conventional media, and one that definitely seemed to resonate. While I attended the play on opening night, which may have meant an unusually enthusiastic audience, the predominantly teen and young adult crowd certainly seemed to take quite a lot of joy in the proceedings, to which some of the credit is probably due a quite talented cast.
Jade Evori Master plays central character Veronica with plenty of sensitivity and spunk though maybe not quite enough edge, though this may come down partially to the play’s writing, which seems to place her in a more passive role than in the movie’s rendering. The character does, though, get to take the lead in the delightfully sexy “Dead Girl Walking,” a number that showcased an impressive chemistry between her and Luke Di Liddo as JD, who maintained a nice balance of innocence and intensity throughout.