Heathers: The Musical is based on the 1988 cult film Heathers, with the musical’s book, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy. Heathers follows the story of three girls named Heather, told through the life of Veronica Sawyer.
Trevor Ashley makes his exciting directing debut with Heathers and has assembled a dynamic and talented team. Emma Vine’s set is simple yet effective, delving deep into high school with lockers and school paraphernalia. Cameron Mitchell’s choreography is sharp, expressive and clean, adding texture and life throughout the production.
It stands that this production can explore the violence-at-schools angle in great depth. In particular scenes, Heathers draws eerily familiar comparisons to school shootings in the US. It is handled skilfully by Stephen Madsen as J.D., with his character becoming overwhelmingly aggressive in his determination to rid the world of assholes. You’re not quite sure whether to be scared of him or feel for him and it ends up as a bit of both. He has a good heart, but like all Heathers characters, he’s damaged and projects that through irrational decisions. Madsen’s performance is intense and heartbreaking.
The two Heathers leading ladies are breathtaking. They are so believable in their roles – you certainly wouldn’t want to cross Lucy Maunder’s Heather Chandler. Maunder personifies ‘bitch’, from her particular strut to her less-than-enthused dancing at a party. Her impeccable vocals and dry wit create the perfect head Heather. Hilary Cole makes her large-scale Melbourne debut stepping into the role of Veronica Sawyer and smashing it. Cole’s Veronica is conflicted and seemingly desperate, bringing a touch of warmth to the otherwise strange role. Cole makes the crowd genuinely feel for Veronica, amplified during her moments of pathos. Maunder and Cole are made for these roles.
A stand-out performance is Lauren McKenna as Ms Fleming and Martha ‘Dumptruck’ Dunnstock. McKenna carried two entirely different roles – voice, costume and persona – and delivered outstanding crowd favourites “Shine a Light” and “Kindergarten Boyfriend” with a sliver of time between them. McKenna is one to watch. Rounding out The Heathers are Rebecca Hetherington as Heather McNamara and Hannah Fredericksen as Heather Duke. Hetherington shines during “Lifeboat”, delivering a completely heart-wrenching performance, and is consistently strong throughout. It’s exciting to see her extraordinary range of talent. After moving past her insecurities, Duke becomes the final obstacle to overcome before Westerberg High can change for good. Fredericksen commits to this complex character, delivering an authentic performance and showcases her skills impressively.
Vincent Hooper and Jakob Ambrose are jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly, and their fathers for a song. These two nail the ‘jock’ brief. Admittedly, I cringed more than once at remembering boys like this at school (ugh). This only made their comedy funnier though and brought a sense of relief at being able to laugh at them. They play the teens exceptionally well, delivering comic relief as needed. Rounding out the cast are Sage Douglas (also as Mrs Sawyer), Stephen McDowell (also as Mr Sawyer), Mitchell Hicks and Heather Manley. This cast felt bigger than it actually is, with brilliant performances by all ensemble members.
With performances like these, it’s disappointing when the technical aspects of a show don’t quite cut it. Evan Drill’s sound design results in being unable to hear some lines, or missing the occasional words during ensemble numbers. These are issues that should have been worked through in rehearsals and previews. It’s particularly concerning given that similar problems were reported during last year’s run at the Hayes Theatre. The talented cast were competing to be heard over the band at times, and microphone cues were occasionally missed. With dialogue and lyrics as sumptuous as Heathers delivers, it was difficult as an audience member to be completely missing lines due to the sound balance being wrong.
While not a major concern, occasionally locker doors would fall open, creating movement away from what should be the main focus and distracting us. Hopefully the latches are made a bit more secure. While the set transitions do have music over them, they can feel lengthy given how little actually changes throughout the piece and the number of them became tiresome.
Angela White’s costumes are true to the Heathers film but distinct enough to stand on their own as iconic 80s outfits. Gavan Swift’s lighting is strategic and appropriate throughout; perhaps the set changes could be edited through various lighting techniques to allow scenes to play out as sets are changed around them more often. Bev Kennedy’s musical direction is seamless as she directs a five-piece band and plays keyboard.
Going into this production excited, but being presented with issues that should have been worked through prior to opening night was disappointing, particularly with performances as strong and memorable as these. The sound balance needs work to match the standards of the otherwise impressive production.
Heathers has all the makings of a five-star show, but doesn’t quite get there due to fixable technical difficulties. Regardless, it’s a show full of dark punchlines and catchy tunes delivered by an exceptional cast. The audience provided big laughs and generous applause. It certainly makes for an exciting production when you can see the who’s who of ‘the next big thing’ in Australian musical theatre.
Heathers: The Musical is on at The Arts Centre’s Playhouse Theatre until 22 May.
Photo credit: Kurt Sneddon