Veronica: Yeah we’re damaged, really damaged but that doesn’t make us wise.
We’re not special, we’re not different – we don’t choose who lives or dies.
Preface: I haven’t included a plot summary of the musical for spoiler purposes.
Heathers the musical is a fantastic example of a show that doesn’t have to succeed on Broadway to have a long and fruitful afterlife. In fact, based on Friday night’s incandescent production, it’s found its spiritual home in regional theatre and high schools. Like Legally Blonde before it, the show manages to emerge from the spectre of a film that is embedded in the audience’s consciousness to become its own glorious entity. The famous costumes, quotable lines and sharp satire are all present, but tonally, the musical bears very little resemblance to the 1988 film. It demands to be experienced on its own merits instead of coasting on the prestige of its famous predecessor. In the thirty years since the film premiered, school shootings, teen suicide, date rape, bullying and mental distress amongst adolescents have become part of an international discussion in a cycle that is both toxic and continuous with little to no resolution. I don’t believe a musical which stuck to the film’s cool and centred tone would have connected with an audience on the level that the musical has. What Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s book, music and lyrics have achieved is to give Heathers a beating heart and transformed the characters into people an audience can identify with, rather than coolly observe. The fact that they’ve achieved this whilst still holding on to what made the original text so unique is inspirational. As a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the original film and the musical in equal measure, even I never expected to find myself tearing up on three occasions.
Judging by the enthusiastic response from the audience (a well-deserved standing ovation), Christian Cavallo should be lauded for his decision to take on this material. His reverence for the text shines so bright it warms the whole audience and his commitment to take it to exciting and profound places made this one of the best musical productions I have seen this year. He has also been blessed with phenomenal production team who work in perfect cohesion. Phil Kearney and Tania Spence (musical director and vocal director) make the musical numbers shine and are well served by Conrad Hendrick’s sound design. It’s a rare pleasure, even in ‘professional’ theatre to hear the band, vocals and sound unified so that neither are overpowering the others. Most of all, they are in complete service to the story.
What makes this production stand out is the attention to detail. A member of the cast nary sings a note without knowing exactly how that note represents their characters emotional state. The lyrics are also given the same attention as the prose, the work that has gone into lyric interpretation has been rewarded in abundance. Nikki Leneghan also pays the same dramatic attention to the choreography, the steps are always in service to the story and character development. I particularly liked how the Heathers (whose synchronicity is superb), Veronica and JD often had their own steps within the ensemble numbers.
Mandee Oakes (costume designer/coordinator) has assembled some gorgeous and kitsch costumes: from her recreations of the famous blazers to the unique ensemble garments. Each character has an individual style and is consistent in all their iterations. As a side note, I’ve been a passionate advocate for alternative hairstyles in musicals for years so seeing a mohawk in the ensemble left me particularly gleeful. Shane Lee’s set is clever and economical and more importantly easy to manoeuvre that ensures smooth transitions between scenes.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that you could put this cast in a professional production of Heathers and they would be well worth the admission price. We are so fortunate in Victoria that we can walk into almost any regional or independent theatre and be faced with performers that consistently raising the bar for fresh and innovative performances. One can only gently say that one wishes this was reflected on the mainstream stage. The response from the audience was thoroughly earned, and I sincerely hope that the enthusiastic and intelligent feedback only increases throughout the run.
As the titular Heathers, Nicole Kaminski, Jess Senflteben, and Chloe Stojanovic make a formidable trio. Imagine Michael Corleone in knee highs and you’d have Heather Chandler…actually no, she’d bring him to his knees. Kaminski excels in her own brand of terrifying charisma, and she is completely equal to her character’s almost mythical control. Jess Senflteben gives a beautifully layered and ultimately heartbreaking performance as Heather Macnamara. One of the greatest innovations of the book is that her character gets expanded and her subplot is given the weight it deserves, and is equally matched Senflteben’s equal gifts as a comic and dramatic actress. It’s a shame the book doesn’t show equal attention to Heather Duke, but Chloe Stojanovic manages to transcend an underwritten role and her descent into corruption is genuinely horrifying.
As I mentioned above, one of the great innovations of the musical is how it expands supporting characters from the film to give them more weight within the narrative. That’s especially true of Martha Dunnstock, who is merely a collection of tasteless fat jokes in the film. Here, she becomes a heroine in her own right. It’s here that I want to briefly mention what I perceive to be the production’s only misstep. Martha’s act 2 solo is staged in half-light. Tessa Reed is giving a performance of stunning sincerity and vulnerability and the fact that we can barely see her, I believe, undermines the potency of the moment. It may very well be an artistic choice, but I think there’s a distinction between the character being dismissed in the text and being undermined in the production. Martha Dunnstock deserves more.
There’s a reason why Veronica Sawyer is one of the most coveted roles in the musical theatre cannon and Shani Clarke brings her to life in all her complexity. It’s a faultless performance: intelligent, witty, dry, and one that doesn’t shirk from the darkness of the situation. She’s giving perhaps the straightest performance in a performance full of heightened characters and she keeps the narrative grounded. Whilst Winona Ryder was cool as a cucumber, this Veronica is a loveable dork who encapsulates the pride and the pain of being the smartest person in the room. Veronica gets some of the most iconic and observant lines in the screenplay and the libretto. Clarke’s completely singular delivery makes it sound like you’re hearing them for the first time. Connor Morel as JD is an absolute match for her. Heathers features what I believe to be one of the best depictions of a toxic relationship – what sets it apart is that at no point does the text depict this as a love story. Clarke and Morel are to be commended for how bravely and unselfishly they explore the twisted and incredibly relatable connection that JD and Veronica share.
Morel’s performance genuinely surprised me. I’m including Christian Slater’s puckish sociopath in this analysis, but this is the first time in my experience in both the film and musical that an actor has not only been able to make the character relatable, but is able to sell his motivations to the audience. His interpretation is thrilling, innovative and deeply humane; he’s charismatic, but he doesn’t hide behind it – he fully embraces the ugly and terrifying nuances of the character. What makes both their performances so compelling and cathartic is so that both these intelligent, lonely kids are barely distinguishable from people that we know. I reiterate, it’s a stunning feat of acting, direction and storytelling.
This is a production is filled with strong performances. Each actor has developed a character that is completely unique and has their own story to tell. This is most definitely a company of equals.
To close this review; I would like to briefly discuss where this musical is sitting in the current national consciousness. The question everyone must ask when mounting this production is, why now? Nothing that is being depicted on that stage or in the score and libretto isn’t happening right now and isn’t far removed from the satirical way it is depicted. What this musical offers is hope, the hope that as individuals and as a society we can be better. It’s not that it will get better but how we can improve right now just by educating ourselves, recognising our limits and by embracing our empathy. By showing a group of characters as tremendously flawed, damaged and scared but ultimately beautiful, we can avoid drowning in nihilism and despair and work together to extend that beauty to our communities. The way that this company has achieved that is by allowing us to spend two hours in the company of some superbly talented artists and letting us partake in the joy and unity they get from sharing their craft.
Heathers runs until the 14th of October at the Playhouse Theatre at Geelong Performing Arts Centre.
If you’re feeling like you need help here are some numbers that can hopefully give you the support you need
Qlife- 1800 184 527 Mensline: 1800 600 636 Suicide call back: 1300 659 467
Lifeline: 13 11 14 Kids helpline: 1800 55 1800
Editor’s Note (via the reviewer): Contrary to what was printed in the review, the lighting during ‘Kindergarten Boyfriend’ was not an artistic choice but rather a missed cue and not a reflection of the original lighting design. That was an incorrect interpretation from my end and a natural opening night hitch, my sincere apologies to the crew for the error.