MUSICAL REVIEW: Heathers the Musical

Heathers (Melbourne, 2016)

Before Mean Girls, there was Heathers. The eighties cult classic starred Winona Ryder and took cliques to a new level of murderous proportions. Full of memorable one-liners, big hair and deliciously black comedy, it was perfect material for a musical. Initially workshopped in 2010, it premiered Off-Broadway in 2014 where it played for five months. It is yet to grace the big lights of Broadway but if there is any justice in the world it is only a matter of time. For now, Australia is treated to an epic production of its own.

Jakob Ambrose & Vincent Hooper
Jakob Ambrose & Vincent Hooper

Veronica (Hilary Cole) is thrilled when she manages to worm her way in to the ‘Heathers’ – the bitchy trio of Heather McNamara (Rebecca Hetherington), Heather Duke (Hannah Fredericksen) and their supreme bitch leader Heather Chandler (Lucy Maunder). She then meets and falls for loner J.D. (Stephen Madsen) who hates the cliquey nature of high school, and together they bond over their shared disdain. But he takes it a little too far, and Veronica is caught up in his destructive ways.

Hilary Cole & Lucy Maunder
Hilary Cole & Lucy Maunder

Trevor Ashley takes on the role of director for the first time, and if Heathers is any indication, he should direct more often. Producers looking to get ideas for a Broadway transfer should look to this production, which based on highly scientific comparisons (i.e. I watched some clips of the Off-Broadway version on YouTube) is the strongest version yet. The costumes by Angela White are certainly an improvement – while the Off Broadway costuming appeared to aim for a cute and preppy look, this production goes full eighties tackiness with extreme shoulder pads and exaggerated hair styling to match. The staging and set design is simple, yet effective.

Hannah Fredericksen, Lucy Maunder & Rebecca Hetherington
Hannah Fredericksen, Lucy Maunder & Rebecca Hetherington

A fantastic cast have been assembled, with Hilary Cole leading the fray as Veronica. I was initially disappointed to hear Jaz Flowers wasn’t starring in the Melbourne production, but those feelings disappeared as soon as Cole opened her mouth. Intrinsically likeable, she brings depth and humour to Veronica, avoiding the whiney Winona Ryder vibe. Lucy Maunder is a perfect bitch as Heather Chandler and continues to show her range. She will soon be stepping into the shoes of Miss Honey in the Brisbane production of Matilda – a big leap from the nasty piece of work she plays here. Hannah Fredericksen clearly has fun bitching it up as the awful Heather Duke, and Rebecca Hetherington displays both heart and absolutely stellar comic timing as Heather McNamara.

Lucy Maunder
Lucy Maunder

Stephen Madsen is beguiling as the dark and jaded J.D. He invokes empathy despite some horrific actions, and his dreamy voice certainly doesn’t hurt either. Vincent Hooper and Jakob Ambrose steal the show as the moronic jocks, Ram Sweeny and Kurt Kelly, doubling as their fathers in a later number. Their two big numbers are some of the best in the show. In another dual role, Lauren McKenna plays Veronica’s best friend Martha as well as school guidance counsellor Ms Fleming and moves seamlessly between both roles – one awkward and shy, and the other larger than life. I had to check it was definitely the same person. She brought the house down in ‘Shine a Light’ and was adorable moments later in ‘Kindergarten Boyfriend’. Sage Douglas, Mitchell Hicks, Heather Manley, and Stephen McDowell complete the cast in multiple smaller roles.

Lauren McKenna - 'Shine a Light'
Lauren McKenna – ‘Shine a Light’

Heathers is at once hilarious and incredibly dark, with the shifts in tone mesmerising. One moment you have a lump in your throat, the next you’re wiping tears of laughter from your eyes. For all the high school movies and musicals that make me wish I could revisit those days, this is one that certainly made me glad I never have to go back. Not that my own experience was bad, however Heathers highlights just how awful some kids can be. It highlights the desperate need of teenagers to fit in at all costs, the pack mentality of the popular crowd, and the lack of respect for women by entitled teenage boys. Beyond that, there’s a haunting sense that you’re getting an insight into the minds of high school shooters, with J.D. giving off a strong Dylan Klebold vibe. He even wears a trench coat. Teens could learn a thing or two from this show, that is, how not to be a total dick in high school.

Jaz Flowers & Stephen Madsen - 'Freeze Your Brain'
Jaz Flowers & Stephen Madsen – ‘Freeze Your Brain’

The best part of the show is its score, with Legally Blonde’s Laurence O’Keefe and Reefer Madness’ Kevin Murphy teaming up to compose brilliant musical numbers. Heathers basically IS Legally Blonde and Reefer Madness combined. Light and sassy one minute, and then utterly deadly the next. There are opportunities galore for the cast to belt it out, with Veronica’s ‘Dead Girl Walking’ the highlight. The Heathers show off just how heinous they are in ‘Candy Store’, Ram and Kurt are hilariously gross in ‘Blue’, and J.D. explains his don’t-give-a-shit mentality in ‘Freeze Your Brain’. Veronica and J.D. are caught up in a dangerous love in ‘Our Love is God’ before reminding us of what high school is meant to be about in the sweet and pure ‘Seventeen’. From the opening bars to the end, I was in love with this score.

Vincent Hooper
Vincent Hooper

Though I was never a massive fan of the movie (it was fine), this musical adaptation is one example of just how much more a solid score and the right theatrics can add to the source material. The only thing I can fault of this production was the sound early on in the show, with the lyrics to ‘Candy Store’ difficult to gauge. However, it was opening night, and the sound improved soon after this early number. This is the best musical I have seen in years and is certainly a favourite now.

5 stars

Heathers played a short run in Melbourne so if you’re reading this now and you missed it, your loss, biatch!

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