Try as I might, I can’t feign any kind of objectivity when it comes to “Heathers: The Musical”:
▪ I know the 1988 cult-classic movie and the 2014 off-Broadway musical (which I saw performed by the original cast in New York) with the encyclopedic assurance of a hermit in a cave with only his holy book for company.
▪ When I hear the word “bulimia,” the words from the movie that follow – “is so ’87” – pop into my head before I can block them. (Yes, I know it’s a serious subject.)
▪ Croquet continues to haunt me.
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▪ In times of trial, I cheer myself up by muttering: “This is my life. Oh my God. I’m gonna have to send my SAT scores to San Quentin instead of Stanford.”
So, yes, I’m probably too close to the subject to offer a dispassionate critical review. Instead, I come from the perspective of a certified “Heathers”-Head.
And this is what I think of the Selma Arts Center production, which opened last weekend:
I loved it.
This production is so good, the eagles want to fly with it.
The show is wonderfully staged, beautifully sung, crisply designed and sharply directed.
Let me start with a warning that should be obvious if you’ve seen the movie. “Heathers” is a very, very black comedy that satirizes such hot-button issues as guns in schools, teen suicide, teen drinking, teen sex and bullying. Taken literally, it isn’t for the faint of heart. Shots are fired. Poison is ingested. Blood is spilled. Profanities are promulgated. (A lot. The show is rated R.) As Veronica Sawyer, through whose eyes we see the whacked-out world of a high school ruled by a clique of powerful (and nasty) popular girls named Heather, succinctly puts it: “My teen angst bullshit now has a body count.”
But great black comedy is about pushing buttons like those – and doing so in a way that you laugh, feel uncomfortable and muse philosophically at the same time.
Director Dominic Grijalva, who showed such flair in last summer’s Selma production of “In the Heights,” once again has a knack for finding a musical’s emotional through-line and tone. From the jaunty opening number, “Beautiful,” which sets the cutthroat social scene at Westerberg High School, to the poignant reprise of “Seventeen,” which closes the show with an optimistic acknowledgment that humans just might overcome their darker tendencies, Grijalva knows his stuff.
The production is of high caliber, often far exceeding its community-theater roots. Claira Broach, in the pivotal role of Veronica, offers outstanding vocals. More than that, she has a grip on this character – her good-naturedness, insecurities, longings, iciness and ultimately her pivot to redemption – that often compares (and occasionally surpasses) Barrett Wilbert Weed’s performance in the original “Heathers” New York cast.
Hannah Huyck, as Heather Chandler, leader of the clique that rules the school, is a towering bundle of attitude (and razor-sharp comic timing). Her two sidekick Heathers (Sabrina Lopez and Lauren Folland) each have fine moments in the spotlight.
William Bishop, as the seriously screwed up J.D. – the bad boy for whom Veronica falls, thus initiating her school’s reign of terror when they “accidentally” kill her best friend – is believably charismatic and grim. Ellie West is strong and empathetic as Martha Dunnstock, Veronica’s beleaguered childhood friend, with a stirring rendition of “Kindergarten Boyfriend.” Daniel LaJune and Tyler Hyde, as the dumb jocks, are comic highlights.
Three actors playing the “adult” roles (Greg Ruud, Jacquie Broach and Jonathon Hogan) are show-stopping delights. Jacquie Broach, in particular, offers a depiction of Miss Fleming – the clueless “hippie” teacher who exemplifies the media obsession with finding and promoting trends, even when that trend is teen suicide – with an acting and vocal excellence that again compares favorably to the original New York production. (Yes, I’m aware that the Broaches are two for two in that regard.)
A fine ensemble rounds out the cast.
Michael Flores’ inspired choreography is a high point of the production. (I love the moves on “Candy Store” and “Shine a Light.”) So are Jeanette Derr’s vivid ’80s-inspired costumes and Lillie Valencia’s mightily teased wigs. The fine live band, conducted by Kyle Lowe, is a treat – and rarely overpowers the singers, a common problem in community productions.
Is this “Heathers” perfect? No. (I’m picky, remember.) A few weaknesses from opening night:
▪ David Esquivel’s lighting design too often leaves upstage characters in the dark, with the first entrance of the three Heathers a noticeable lighting letdown.
▪ LaJune and Hyde, in particular, carry their characterizations too far when they’re dancing, giving us exaggerated movements that stand out too much. They need to fit more smoothly into ensemble numbers, and even when they’re dancing alone, their movements are too jerky.
▪ We lose too many lyrics. This is more of a problem among the men than the women, in particular the songs “Blue” (whose lyrics are among the funniest in the show) and “My Dead Gay Son.”
▪ The use of video didn’t live up to its potential on opening night, from what I understand the result of technical difficulties. (I want to see the show again just to see these effects.)
▪ I want the show’s climactic scene to feel more tense. I realize that with a minimalist design, it’s hard to depict the “action-adventure” elements of the plot, but perhaps more could have been done with direction and lighting design to convey more of a sense of danger on stage.
Still, these are mere imperfections in an overall “Heathers” canvas that feels expertly painted. For all its bleakness and wry, dark wit, the show offers a ray of hope even as it ponders whether teen angst morphs into life angst. As Veronica sings:
I can't promise no more Heathers, high school may not ever end, still I miss you,
I'd be honored, if you'd let me be your friend.
Profound stuff, when you dig deep. To which I can only say: How very.
Heathers: The Musical
- Through Aug. 20
- Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St., Selma
- www.selmaartscenter.com, (559) 891-2238
- $20, $18 seniors
- Special cabaret performance and art auction will be held Friday, Aug. 12, immediately following the show. Proceeds from pay-what-you-can admission benefit the Selma Arts Center and participating artists.