Regional Reviews: Chicago
In the extended opening number, ironically titled "Beautiful," we're shown a world in which everyone is labeled. The kids are freaks or geeks, stoners or preppies, dumb jocks or fatties. Or they're "Heathers"the exclusive clique led by three attractive, well dressed girls named Heather, who are each as frightening in demeanor as the other kids are in appearance. Composers Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, who collaborated on the book and lyrics as well as the music, set this scene to an appropriately pop-gone-macabre score. Many in the audience will know from the film where this is going. It's a twisted tale in which a nice girl teams up with the new boy at school to kill off the evil clique-sters, but for the film's fans and newcomers alike, expectations are set that in this musical version we're in for a dark and satiric view of life among the senior class of Westerburg High School. The slightly surreal unit set by Ashley Ann Woods and the realistic and yet somehow surreal pastel-colored costumes of Bob Kuhn, bathed in red-infused light by designer Brandon Wardell, set up the tone of this musical from the get-go.
As it progresses, Heathers strays from this point of view by failing to stay focused on social castes in high school. The writers take shots at aging hippy new-agey teachers, homophobia, distant parents, teenage suicide, and bulimia. The satire thus loses much of its bite for its scattershot targets. It could benefit from some further workit seems a bit of an early draft at this point. Still, it's frequently brutally funny, often deliberately crude, and uncompromising in its criticism of the many social ills surrounding teens. The energetic score by Murphy and O'Keefe is more in the style of musicalized scenes than show tunes, melodic and fast-paced, and sung here by a terrifically talented young non-Equity cast of newcomers to, and relative veterans of, the Chicago musical theater scene.
Music director Kory Danielson and his conductor Charlotte Rivard-Hoster lead the cast and four-piece band (keyboard, guitar, bass, and percussion) in a strong reading of the impressive score. The cast performs some mightily impressive choreography as wellwith Sawyer Smith's dances covering a variety of genres and helping to establish the high school environment by capturing the way teens move. There's also a fight scene in which Garrett Lutz as the mean jock Kurt hilariously takes punches in slow motion during a fist fight. It's one of the highlights of the evening.
As Veronica, the "good girl" who is pretty enough to join the Heathers but moral enough to object to their nastiness, Courtney Mack has an Idina Menzelian set of pipes that deliver the rock-infused numbers in style. Her leading man Chris Ballou, as mysteriously sexy and murderous J.D., is not as strong a singer, with his voice getting a little thin in his upper register. And though the two have a nice stage presence and good chemistry, they both struggle with the nuances required for their challenging roles. Mack doesn't quite show us Veronica's conflicting emotions as she first goes along with the Heathers, then objects when they get excessively mean to others, and how later she can move from attraction to J.D. and complicity in his murders to revulsion and shame at his actions and her acquiescence to them. It's a tough order for the actress, but we need to know where Veronica is at all times in this frightening journey. Ballou initially convinces us that J.D. is a decent kid who's just rejected for being moody and different, but he could do more to initially suggest and gradually reveal the sociopath underneath.
The supporting players, whose emotions aren't nearly so complex, have an easier time of it. Jacquelyne Jones as Heather Chandler (the "main" Heather) is deliciously mean, while her Heather minions played by Haley Jane Schafer and Rochelle Therrien are suitably smarmy. As the plus-size Martha Dunnstock (meanly called Martha "Dumptruck"), who was friends with all the mean kids when they were innocent grade schoolers, Teressa LaGamba has a winning naivete, and a powerhouse voice for her big number. Denzel Tsopnang and Garrett Lutz are the heavies of a different kind: the brutal dumb jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly. They resort a little too much to stereotype and, like the ensemble playing the mix of nerds and stoners, seem a little uncertain of how far to push these caricatures. The piece is a dark satire, to be sure, and it's okay for the actors to "comment" on their characters, but the cast frequently gives us a little more than we need to get their points. This may well settle down over the course of the run and in any event, director James Beaudry keeps the pace brisk while creating arresting stage pictures on Ashley Ann Woods' clever unit set.
If Heathers is a bit uneven, it remains an ambitious musical and one that's worth seeing for its willingness to stretch the genre in unexpected ways. It's good to see that the Chicago theater community's conservatism in selecting musicals for production is finally breaking down. Prior to this season, the most adventurous musicals produced in Chicago were those by Stephen Sondheimstill great, but not exactly risky choices any more. This season, though, we will have a number of new pieces by younger writers on local stages. Besides the soon-to-close Far from Heaven at Porchlight Music Theatre, we saw Kitt and Green's High Fidelity by Refuge Theatre Project, BoHo's production of Pasek and Paul's Dogfight, and later this spring we'll finally see the Chicago premiere of O'Keefe's Bat Boy. Those who care about the future of the genre will want to catch Heathers and they'll have a good time doing it.
Heathers: The Musical will play through April 24, 2016, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago. For tickets or further information, visit www.kokandyproductions.com or call 773-975-8150.