Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Heathers The Musical
Also see Richard's review of Twelfth Night
A musicalization of the 1988 movie with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, the first New York staging ran for about four and a half months Off-Broadway in 2010. Laurence O'Keefe's (Legally Blonde) and Kevin Murphy (Reefer Madness) wrote the musical, and it is an overwhelming experienceadmirably put forth, but ruthlessly intense in the final 20 minutes or so: basically, all the teenagers with speaking parts seem to be committing murder or suicide or getting murdered and made to look like suicides.
And yet, there is swagger and the bottomless irony of youth. And great singing and kindness and charm too.
Now, you probably won't remember this, but a few weeks ago this reviewer complained about musicalizations of movies in general (in a review of a local production of The Full Monty)writing that seems too mechanical and watered down. Here, though, it may be a blessing.
In this particular stage version of a movie, the story and the characters avoid the usual dilution of cloning, thanks to the absolutely meticulous direction by Mr. Miller and Mike Dowdy. But the subject matter becomes so intense that simply knowing the rules of the genre, and knowing that you'll plunge into one scene and finally escape with a pretty good (or even a great) song at scene's end, gives you a much-needed sense of relief. It's a rare case where structure reassures you of formula, and eventual release, as we look down on the abject misery of high school.
There's also a healthy dose of modern humor, and lots of style. Anna Skidis is very good as Veronica (the Winona Ryder role), forever battling against the power and corruption of a trio of Heathers, played with ferocious haughtiness by Sicily Mathenia, Cameisha Cotton, and Larissa White. It's almost as if Dorothy Gale crash-landed in Oz, only to be set upon by three wicked witches. These young ladies are hilarious in a brusque, Anna Wintour sort of way, bitchy and dismissive and fabulous, in costumes that ferry between the prep and the punk. Each one gets her comeuppance, eventually, most notably in the case of Heather McNamara (Ms. White). Her gradual decline, and mesmerizing song near the end, prove to be beautiful and dreadful.
In the upside-down world of teenagers, where belonging is more important than almost anything else, the wicked girls' entrance is greeted with a heavenly choir of harmonies from the rest of the ensemble. Their overall musicianship, and the various forms of artistry that blossom throughout this Heathers The Musical, may be the greatest achievement of all.
Evan Fornachon plays J.D., the new kid who reacts violently to bullying. And he manages to easily do what most actors find very difficult: portray on-stage madness without ever seeming false or superficial. In the Christian Slater role, he also captures, with the fine Chris Kernan, the dry strangeness of their son-and-father relationship at home.
In another role, Mr. Kernan and Joel Hackbarth get a song that is at once buoyantly funny and also deeply unfunny, "(I Still Love) My Dead Gay Son," and miraculously carry it off without offending, while maintaining the complex satire of the moment. You may be able to predict the end of their number, but not the layering of reactions you'll have in the course of it.
There's something else that strikes me about this transfer from screen to stage: a lot of the character and plot development still happens outside the songs (or is duplicated in the songs). The songs enhance the emotional tenor, but don't often seem crucial to the show. The most obvious exceptions are Larissa White's (Heather McNamara) gasp-inducing "Lifeboat," and the delightful Grace Seidel's (Martha Dunnstock) equally mesmerizing story of childhood love, "Kindergarten Boyfriend").
So it's a first-rate staging of a quirky, stylish, and very dark movie, with nice songs to heighten the moods (a few of which are genuinely outstanding). Or, perhaps it's a great coming-of-age rock opera that just happens to have some dialog that could be cut, or "sung through."
Either way, it's a great occasion to visit our newest local venue: a rarely produced show that's challenging, lovingly produced and bitchy fun, as fans of New Line Theatre have come to expect.
The beginning of New Line's 25th Season, Heathers The Musical runs through October 24, 2015, at the Marcelle Theatre (free parking available) at 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, three blocks east of Grand Ave. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.com.
The New Line Band
The Artistic Staff