By: Frank Thompson
OnStage Productions’ decision to tackle an all-teenage rendition of Heathers: The Musical (High School Edition) was a bold move.
Those who recall the 1989 film featuring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater will no doubt wonder how “watered down” the high school version is, compared to the original big-screen story, which tackled some pretty adult themes and situations. The answer is “not much.” A few of the more salacious scenes are referenced as offstage action, the violence is slightly less graphic, and what is arguably the film’s most (in)famous line regarding a chainsaw is suggested rather than repeated verbatim. Beyond that, the show stays largely faithful to the source material.
OnStage Executive Director Robert Harrelson and Director David LaTorre bring the audience an unflinching production in line with Harrelson’s laudable commitment to presenting material exactly as written. If you’re easily offended, or squeamish about seeing teenagers performing a stylized-yet-realistic show that includes suggestive, abusive, and occasionally shocking material, you may want to pass on this one, but you’ll miss a gem full of the next generation of Midlands theatrical talent.
This isn’t as innocent as Bye Bye Birdie, or sweetly cute-naughty in the style of Grease or Hairspray, but it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a well-penned stage version of a classic, albeit dark, coming-of-age movie and when performed by such a talented cast, it can legitimately compete with much of what’s on offer from the various theatre companies featuring adult casts.
Rachael Sprankle shines in her first feature role as Heather Chandler, the saucy, take-no-prisoners leader of the school’s most popular clique. (If you haven’t seen the film, all three members of this power trio share the first name of Heather.) Sprankle’s stage presence is commanding, and her voice perfectly suited for the 80s-esque score. The darkness of the story begins fairly early on with her death and continues with her presence as a ghost surrounding her friends and enemies. Sprankle brings a slightly detached, ethereal quality to the afterlife identity while never losing her alpha-female edge established in the early scenes. Her transition is subtle, yet tangible, and introduces a layer of meta-reality which subsequent “ghost” characters sustain. Her fellow Heathers, Heather McNamara (Ivy Munnerlyn) and Heather Duke (Harper Kirk), are the teenage equivalents of Darth Vader to Heather Chandler’s Emperor Palpatine. They enjoy tremendous influence and social power over their peers, yet still play second fiddle to the superior who occasionally keeps them in check.
Kirk, who also co-choreographs the show with Katie Edelson, exudes a convincingly menacing presence as she bides her time, clearly waiting for the opportunity to assert herself as the group’s leader. When she finally so does, it’s one of the production’s most chilling moments by merely putting her hair in a scrunchie. Munnerlyn’s Heather McNamara positively drips attitude and privilege but is given less attention in the first act than Sprankle and Kirk. I was on the verge of feeling like her character got shortchanged until she burst into song in Act II, revealing her to be the most textured and conflicted member of the group. Munnerlyn unapologetically embraces the intensity of her big moment, showcasing an impressive voice and unexpected fragility.
The show’s creepily romantic love story between the Heathers’ Eliza Doolittle-esque protégé, Veronica (Caroline Quinn), and her brooding loner lover, J.D. (Paul Smith), drives the plot, and both Quinn and Smith are at at the top of their respective games. Veronica, a semi-nerdy nobody when the show begins, quickly gains popularity under the Heathers’ malevolent tutelage. Though still too young to drive or vote, Quinn is already a seasoned stage veteran with several professional credits on her resume, and it shows. Veronica is the show’s most complex role, and Quinn creates a clear character arc as we gradually realize the events are seen from her point of view. With what is arguably the strongest voice in a show full of outstanding vocalists, she captures Veronica’s fragility and uncertainty with an almost childlike softness while still belting out powerful show-stoppers with aplomb. Smith’s J.D. is equally compelling as the ethical relativist foil to Veronica’s by-the-book absolutist. Complete with black trench coat and tousled hair, J.D. is eerily reminiscent of the all-too-familiar troubled teenage school shooters of the Columbine tragedy, down to his fascination with firearms and twisted sense of justice. Smith manages to sustain a sympathetic character while embodying a figure of nihilistic menace, playing an antihero whose diabolical acts are unsettlingly presented as almost justifiable.
There isn’t a weak link in the show, but several standouts deserve mention. As Ram and Kurt, the bullying, predatory football stars, Cameron Eubanks and Tucker Privette exude menace and danger, especially in their scene with Quinn, where the two characters come dangerously close to succeeding in an attempted sexual assault on Veronica. (In all fairness, while gripping, this scene should probably come with a trigger warning for its realism.) As the show’s “fat and ugly” girl, Martha Dumptruck, Katie Edelson (who is neither fat nor ugly, yet effectively portrays someone convinced by her peers that she is both) provides several heart-wrenching moments of pathos, capped by a second act power ballad that literally brought the opening night audience to its feet. Alongside Jeymerson Lopez’s delightfully befuddled Principal Gowan, Lexi Peake introduces some welcome comic relief as the New-Agey teacher Mrs. Fleming, and Michael Rego is superbly distasteful as J.D.’s bullying father. The rest of the cast features multiple talented up-and-comers who are fully committed to creating and sustaining three-dimensional characters with personalities and backstories, making even the smallest of roles memorable.
The production’s drawbacks are few, but I would be remiss to exclude them even if they hardly diminish the excellence onstage. A couple of the soloists are a bit difficult to hear, and several lines of dialogue could do with more projection, as well. The set, while appropriately macabre, is slightly out of sync with the neon-hued 1980s fashions. (To be fair, it serves double duty with Love Bites, a vampire-based comedy running in rep with Heathers, and its grey brick motif likely works perfectly for a campy Hammer Films-style Transylvanian setting.)
Heathers is a marvelous showcase for the rising stars of the Columbia area, and an impressive achievement for OnStage Productions, which reaches a new level of quality with each show.
The show runs through this weekend. Call 803-351-6751 for resevations.
Frank Thompson is proud to serve as JASPER’s Theatre Editor.