With the book, music, and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe (the same team that gave us shows like Reefer Madness and Legally Blonde) and drenched in the same 80’s flair as the movie it’s based on, Heathers comes stalking into the Tin Shed like a big cat looking for prey. Rounding out the 2017 season for the crew at Phoenix Ensemble, Heathers is a powerhouse success.
A show about high school bullying, sexual assault, violence, gun crime and surviving is an incredibly well timed choice for the company, and that it examines it through such a accessible filter and such an iconic score makes it a perfect choice.
Director Morgan Garrity brought the collective ensemble together with startling clarity. Pulling a focus from her cast that left no dull moment from start to finish. Garrity’s vision is so clear, and her character work is so thorough and nuanced, that the audience are pulled helplessly into the whirlpool of the story.
Of particular note is the strength of her work with the chorus, who each had a clear character (many played multiple key characters), and who all had small stories of their own to tell. It didn’t matter where you looked on stage, a story was playing out fascinatingly, and it never once pulled focus from the main production.
Garrity also pulled double duty, designing the set which though simple, was so thoroughly well used it is almost a character in and of itself. It was obviously well rehearsed, each entrance and exit was so tight and deliberate and well thought out and is a credit to the full company.
Brady Watkins gave us some exemplary musical direction. Tight harmony work, nuanced ensemble singing, excellent lead vocals and a show that rocketed forward from start to finish. The orchestra was outstanding, and there were several audience members overhead wondering if it was a recording,rather than a live band. Absolute kudos must be given to the musicians for their wonderful work.
Choreography by Lauren Elizabeth Wormald was tight, clear, and exciting. Often a case of less is more, but never shying away from some big moments of thoroughly rehearsed work. From the tight trio work during ‘Candy Store’ to the vibrant full ensemble work during ‘Big Fun’ Wormald’s choreography is slick, and fun.
As Veronica Sawyer, Erika Naddei is a revelation. Naddei’s Veronica is bright, bubbly, and complex. She lends a wonderfully dry humour to the role, and her asides are often side splittingly fun. Naddei’s vocal work is amazing and brings a powerful voice to bear on songs like ‘Dead Girl Walking’ but also showing her range with the softer “Seventeen.’ Veronica is the human core of the show, and tight ropes through the very realistic dilemma of accepting popularity versus being true to who you are and Naddei gives us a masterclass in balanced performance.
As the “mythic” Heather Chandler, Alanah Bebendorf is a powerhouse of eyeshadow, broadway belt, and sass. Her singing is exemplary and she is clearly having as much fun onstage as the audience is having watching her work. Bebendorf nails the balance of comedic, and nasty perfectly. Dominating the stage every time she enters, Bebendorf is a force of nature.
The role of JD is a difficult one to get right, in many ways a straight foil to the chaos going on around him all the while revealing a dark, sadistic nature underneath. Liam Chapman is wonderful and drives the story forward easily. Embracing the complicated teenage angst, his acting was subtle and finds its mark as both love interest, and herald of the destruction to come. He struggled slightly with his upper register on opening night, but kept it together and delivered some fantastic duet work with Naddei.
Rounding out the Heathers trio are Gabby Diaz (Heather Duke) and Jahla Black (Heather McNamara). Both Diaz and Black are excellent back up for Bebendorf, and provide plenty of amazing harmony work. They both bring such clearly individual characters to the fore, while at the same time embracing the hegemony of the “Heather” unit. Of particular note is Diaz’s acting work in ascending to the throne post Heather Chandler, unleashing a wave of uber bullying, and Black’s emotional delivery of ‘Lifeboat.’
The best friend, and the ultimate voice of humanity and reason in the show is Martha Dunstock, played by Aliya Booth. Her performance is delightful and heartbreaking. The energy Booth brings to the stage is unlike any other, lighting up the space with a wonderful naivety and boundless optimism. Contrasting that strongly is her performance of ‘Kindergarten Boyfriend’ which stunned the audience into a pindrop, horrified silence and is up there with some of the best performance work of the show.
Full credit needs to go t the chorus who gave a cohesive, powerful series of performances. Pouring energy in everything they did, every member gave a nuanced, detailed, committed performance, and were a masterclass in maintaining their story whilst never detracting from the main storyline.
Honorary mentions must go to;
- Tyler Stevens and Mitchell Walsh as Kurt and Ram respectively. The school jocks who meet an unfortunate death, equal parts hilarious and devastating in their performances.
- Matt Dunne and Michael Baillie as the dads. Their performance of ‘My Dead Gay Son’ is side splittingly hilarious.
- Lisa Ng as Ms. Fleming. So much energy poured out of her throughout her performance, and her eventual breaking during ‘Shine A Light’ is jarring to watch.
A simple but effective light design by Jesse Cole leant the production the light and shade it needed to walk the tight rope of a dark comedy without tipping too far one way or the other. Nice, bright, fresh scenes were contrasted starkly with grimly lit tableau, and a powerful use of a single spotlight on someone feeling so thoroughly trapped by their circumstance that they felt they had no choice but “jump” to find release.”
Overall some very solid work with the sound design by Dean Bradley and Brady Watkins, in particular the quality of the sound coming from the band, which was hidden neatly away, but came through with crystal clarity. There were some balance problems throughout, that led to a some of the “throwaway” lines being lost, rather than lifted above the chorus. However, this did improve as the show went on.
The sharp, consistent costume design and creation by Darcy Morris and Justin Tubb-Hearne was a delight and leant full tilt into the 80’s roots. Shoulder pads and big hair dominated the core trio and gave them an unnerving dominance in the space. Additionally, credit must go to the team, allowing background members of the ensemble to quickly, and identifiably become the supporting roles (parents, teachers ect) before quickly disappearing back into the ensemble again.
With Heathers, Phoenix Ensemble have created a show that is truly special, and incredibly well timed. It is dark, funny, irreverent, and in so many ways iconic of a period in time we could have left behind, but haven’t. This production is an example of just how incredible theatre in a ‘tin shed’ can be. If you haven’t got your ticket yet, you must do yourself a favour and go visit them. Seriously. You won’t regret it. Heathers is on at the Beenleigh Showgrounds and runs until the 4th of November.