NEW YORK—Take any John Hughes teenage angst movie, toss in the raunchiness of the stage musical “Grease”—the original version—sprinkle in a liberal helping of black humor, a brilliant score, and an absolutely top-notch cast, and you have “Heathers: The Musical.”
The book, music, and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe are based on the film written by Daniel Waters. It is one of the most enjoyable shows to come along in many a year, and it is now at New World Stages.
The local high school in Westerberg, Ohio, circa 1988, is filled with student cliques, that is, losers, jocks, and dweebs.
Riding herd on the different groups are the Heathers—Heather Chandler (Jessica Keenan Wynn), Heather McNamara (Elle McLemore), and Heather Duke (Alice Lee)—the coolest kids in school, as well as absolutely malicious, and from whom one word can mean total acceptance or social banishment.
Nowhere near the Heathers in terms of status is Veronica Sawyer (Barrett Wilbert Weed), a high school senior and a bit of a loner who, in between counting the days to graduation, desperately longs for acceptance.
When Veronica does the Heathers a favor, they take her under their wing. Veronica quickly learns that popularity comes with a price, like ditching her longtime friend, the overweight Martha Dunnstock (Katie Ladner).
When the Heathers go too far, and Veronica publicly turns against them, she finds herself about to be ostracized. However, things change when Heather Chandler commits suicide, with a little unwitting help from Veronica and some not so unwitting help from the brooding J.D. (Ryan McCartan), a recent high school transfer who falls for Veronica.
J.D. may have issues as dark as the black clothing he wears, a fact that becomes clear as the body count rises.
Taking the best elements from the cult classic and wonderfully bringing the characters to life on stage, “Heathers: The Musical” shows perfectly the pain, conflict, and ultimate loneliness of adolescence.
At the same time, it brilliantly illustrates, in a comical backhanded way, J.D.’s firm conviction of how good can come from tragedy, with tolerance and understanding being the ultimate message of the show. This message is thankfully delivered without being overly preachy.
There’s also the hypocrisy of those who take advantage of any situation to push their own agenda, such as a teacher (Michelle Duffy) who tries too hard to get the entire school to come together on live television.
Most of characters are given enough of an emotional backstory to make their situations both relatable and understandable. Instances range from Martha’s kindergarten romance to one of the Heathers cracking under the strain of being perfect all the time.
The show takes pains to not take itself too seriously. We see this as one intended victim looks on in confusion as his attacker bursts into song, and characters freeze in exaggerated positions while the action is taking place elsewhere. Good work here by choreographer Marguerite Derricks and fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet.
Weed does a great job as Veronica, a girl who just wants to be liked, though not really thinking of the consequences of her actions until it may be too late.
McCartan is excellent as the likable and psychopathic J.D. He’s seen too much in his 17 years, yet is still a bit of a dreamer, though said dreams can be more than a little warped at times.
Wynn is an absolute scream as Heather Chandler, who has everyone wrapped around her little finger, and even when she dies, her presence is still felt.
Evan Todd and Jon Eidson are great as two ill-fated football players, and Ladner does a wonderfully sympathetic turn as Martha, probably the one person everyone is rooting for to make it out of Westerberg alive.
Andy Fickman’s direction works well here, with various scenes shifting from one to the next quickly and easily. He also makes sure all of the actors keep their characters at least somewhat grounded in reality, never taking them too much over the top despite the potential for doing so.
Timothy R. Mackabee’s sets are enjoyable, and the costumes by Amy Clark are dead-on at times, especially the outfits the Heathers wear.
A hoot from start to finish, “Heathers: The Musical” offers a stark reminder of how dangerous the need to fit in can be and how almost no one is really as they are first perceived—be it for either good or evil.
Also in the cast are Charissa Hogeland, Cait Fairbanks, Rachel Flynn, Dustin Sullivan, Dan Domenech, AJ Meijer, Anthony Crivello, and Daniel Cooney.
Heathers: The Musical
New World Stages
340 West 50th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.