By Barry Reszel
Heathers first came into public consciousness two years before Shannen Doherty as Brenda Walsh moved into the 90210 zip code and more than a decade before Winona Ryder as herself was nicked for shoplifting at the Beverly Hills Sacks Fifth Avenue.
Upon its 1988 release, the film was called “the best high school black comedy ever made” by Entertainment Weekly. Set in fictional Westerburg, Ohio, Veronica Sawyer and her impressive forgery skills are accepted into a powerful, cruel clique of three girls, each named Heather. Funny, right? It is, until Veronica and her new-kid boyfriend J.D. show off their psychotic sides, leading to a gruesome cycle of cruelty, murder and suicide.
Indeed, it would be so much simpler if Heathers could simply take its rightful place among late 20th century horror genre classics, alongside The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1878), The Shining (1980) and others.
But two things keep that from happening, one that literally makes this review possible … the other that makes writing it quite difficult.
First, some really creative people turned the show into a stage musical. Sometime around 2010 Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blonde) and Kevin Murphy (Desperate Housewives) collaborated on the book, music and lyrics for Heathers: the Musical, which is really quite good and was met with fair acclaim during its 2014 off-Broadway run.
Second, perhaps the thing that will keep Heathers: the Musical from Broadway forever, perhaps rightfully so, perhaps that which should have prevented its very creation all together, is April 20, 1999.
April 20, 1999, the older, less famous, sibling of September 11, 2001, is the date two sick, evil, selfish high school seniors, Eric Davis and Dylan Klebold, murdered 15 people (themselves included) and injured 24 more during a planned massacre of classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, their high school, in a Denver suburb.
It’s the date that makes this plot no longer snarky, sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek. Excuse the French, but April 12, 1999 is the day Heathers’ shit got real. So please forgive this reviewer, who took in Kokandy Productions’ excellent Chicago premiere alongside his daughter less than a year removed from her own high school reality, for examining this through a somewhat different, parental lens (wisely permitting my oft-absent prudent side to keep me from publicly outing her personal Heathers).
“Everyone had their own Heathers,” she told me. “Those people who are really awful … you want them to like you just so you don’t have to put up with their making up lies and spreading false rumors.” Add to that the abandonment by those believed to be best friends, at a time of life and death; the environment of envy over grades, clothes, talent and family life; the availability of alcohol, drugs and guns; the pressure to succeed; and the thought that even our would-be leaders might not really care (see link here).
It all adds up to high school, for many people, being a frightening reality show.
That’s certainly not Kokandy’s fault. And to be fair, James Beaudry‘ s eloquent director’s note in the Heathers program, designed as a copy of the Westerburg High School newspaper, shows this company gets it.
“The elephant in the gymnasium, of course,” Beaudry writes, “is that Heathers uses violence in broad strokes, and millennials have grown up rehearsing school shootings like they were fire drills. How dare we presume to laugh at this new circle of teenage hell?”
But he continues, that against a “spectrum of horrors,” Heathers is a “Faustian tale of a girl who makes a deal to get her wish, wreaks havoc on the world and then has to set it right. What better metaphor than an all-American high school of the story of our journey into and out of hell on our way to authenticity? It’s all about growing up, Heather.”
And that’s where Beaudry and I part ways. Bullies can grow up, see the error of their ways, do penance and ask for and receive forgiveness.
Killers, on the other hand, cannot “set it right.” Not for their victims. Not for their victims’ families. Not for themselves, if they take their own lives. Not ever. Columbine gives our society that understanding.
The dead cannot see stunning Courtney Mack‘s depiction of Veronica or hear her lovely voice (“Beautiful,” “Seventeen” and others) or the appropriately eerie performance of Chris Ballou as J.D.
Those deceased will not enjoy Beaudry’s fine direction, Sawyer Smith‘s wonderfully executed choreography, the cast’s tight harmonies (directed by Kory Danielson and Charlotte Rivard-Hoster), Ashley Ann Woods‘ terrific multi-level stage, Mike Patrick‘s spot-on sound mix or highlight performances by Jacquelyne Jones (Heather Chandler), Hayley Jane Schafer (Heather Duke), Rochelle Therrien (Heather McNamara), Denzel Tsopnang (Ram Sweeney) and Teressa LaGamba (Martha Dunnstock).
The top-notch rock score and clever lyrics, well placed humor and overall terrific ensemble cast are all off limits to those six feet under.
But while we may disagree about the rationale behind producing this musical, or perhaps about the take-aways it provides, those are analytical nits about which arts aficionados may argue well into the night.
There is nothing to keep living Chicagoland musical theatre patrons from experiencing this brilliant production. And experience it they should.
Though not necessarily with their teenage daughters.
Because that might make them, perhaps, want to feed Drano to their daughters’ Heathers.
Kokandy Productions presents “Heathers: the Musical” through April 24 at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago. More information and tickets are available by phone at (773) 975-8150 or online here.