Some reading the headline for this review may think a word is missing from the end, but those familiar with the cult classic film “Heathers” will know what I mean – it’s part of that movie’s 1980s teenage lingo along with “What’s your damage?”
The answer to that question where Street Theatre Company’s production of “Heathers – The Musical” is concerned is “None.” The good cast and musicians, the expertly-blocked direction as well as some energetic choreography hijinks and other inventive elements make this edgy and entertaining show a should-see.
Yes, it’s true this high school-centered show is not appropriate for young patrons – it has situations and language that make it more suitable for mature audiences like those that have seen the “R” rated flick penned by Daniel Waters upon which Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy (Legally Blonde, Reefer Madness) based their witty book, vibrant music and sharp lyrics. And the film’s then-contemporary satire of 1980s life is largely – but wisely given the passage of time – gone from this 21st Century version, though the setting (greatly underscored by Set Designer Randall Ty Pike’s huge boom box and cassette tapes around the Looby Theater stage superbly back-and-front lit by Steven Steele as well as Jessica Mueller’s spot-on period costumes) remains firmly planted in Reagan’s America and the work still comments on that decade in look, sound and feel.
But as with its inspiration this musical – a Los Angeles, Off-Broadway and now worldwide hit following a successful Australian production in Sydney – focuses on the timeless challenges of teenage angst with a very large dose of dark humor. Seventeen-year-old Veronica Sawyer (Rosemary Fossee) is the square peg in a round hole at Westerburg High School in Ohio; she’s tired of being on the outside looking in so she decides to cast her lot with the threesome at the top of the social ladder – the formidable and feared Heather Chandler (Marnie Price) and her aloof associates Heather Duke (Mallory Gleason Mundy) and Heather McNamara (Katelyn Rose). There’s a price to pay for popularity, though – Veronica’s best friend Martha Dunnstock, known-not-so-affectionately as “Martha ‘Dumptruck’” (Sydney Hooper), certainly can’t come along for the ride, and what about that somewhat strange guy named Jason Dean (Chris Lee) who has just arrived in town?
The fast-paced show from a musical standpoint has numbers that feel like the rock-pop offspring of a match between “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and TV’s “High School Musical” with “Spring Awakening” and “Grease” as not-so-distant relations. The show’s second number, “Candy Store” is a good mix of youthful exuberance and edginess led by the three Heathers, while Veronica’s “Prom or Hell?” at the top of Act II gives us more of the darkness created when murderous thoughts have evolved into terrible actions. Musical Director Randy Kraft on keys as well as fellow musicians Lee Druce (also on keyboard), Cameron Cleland (guitar), Luke Easterling (bass), Ryan Middagh (sax) and Chris Schaub (drums) play the score with verve and variety.
DeVon Buchanan’s choreography is a critical component in the success of this piece; the dancing has not only the energy appropriate to the mostly young characters but conveys the attitudes of those characters and their actions clearly and believably. And some of the best moments occur when the action slows down to show moments of violence in slow motion as staged by fight choreographer Eric D. Pasto-Crosby – facial reactions and movement combine to make what might have otherwise been horrible quite humorous.
Assisting Buchanan with that choreography is Price, who is absolutely perfect in delivering the mean-spirited spoiled princess that is Heather Chandler. And the same is true of Mundy (also an assistant choreographer) and Rose, who gets a powerfully poignant moment in “Lifeboat.” As the boys with only one thing on their minds Taylor Kelly (Ram) and Gerold Oliver (Kurt) are a hoot (though admittedly the nightmare of every daddy of a teenage female like me), as are Antonio P. Nappo (the show’s fight captain as well) and David Ridley as their dads in the rousing “My Dead Gay Son” number.
Martha Wilkinson has directed this show well and also provides some of her impeccably-timed comic talents to the roles of Veronica’s mom and ex-hippie guidance counselor Ms. Fleming (particularly during the “Shine a Light” sequence). Hooper does a beautiful job with the touching “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” and Lee as Dean is excellent at balancing the sweet and sour of a very Jekyll and Hyde personality (whether on his own or in beautiful moments with Fossee like those in “Our Love is God”) to make him not only believable but worth caring about despite his homicidal tendencies.
But for “Heathers” to work the actor playing Veronica (so memorably portrayed in the movie by Winona Ryder) must give us a strong performance. That’s certainly the case with the engaging performance by Fossee, who long ago proved she was a terrific triple-threat. Here’s what I wrote in a 2010 Tennessean review after seeing her for the first time in Street’s production of “Alice in Wonderland”: “Fossee, a 17-year-old Franklin Road Academy student, already possesses the presence and poise many older actors would love to have. She’s also quite talented, with a strong, clear singing voice and the essential ability to make rehearsed actions and reactions look spontaneous. Her focus is that of a mature performer. I expect and hope that we’ll get to see more of her stagecraft in future.”
Well, that has happily proved true, and from the beginning “Beautiful” number through “Dead Girl Walking” and “Seventeen” reprise Fossee’s acting, singing and dancing keep this production focused, fresh and funny. Fossee is a team player whether she’s leading or supporting a story in a show, and along with her ensemble mates we get the entertaining “Heathers” we deserve.
“Heathers” runs through Sept. 13 at the Z. Alexander Looby Theater (2301 Rosa L. Parks Blvd.). Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. Pay-What-You-Can tickets are available by clicking here, by calling (615) 554-7414 or at the door if available, though sellouts for STC shows are common so you’re advised to book seats in advance. This production is supported in part through Metro Nashville Arts Commission, Tennessee Arts Commission and Metro Parks and Recreation. Note: This show has the theatrical equivalent of an “R” movie rating because of its mature language and content and is not intended for young audiences.