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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Heathers: The Musical
Wright State University
Review by Scott Cain | Season Schedule

Also see Scott's review of Thoroughly Modern Millie

While many new musicals these days are based on movies, it's a bit of a surprise that Heathers, the dark 1988 cult film about teenage suicide and bullying, would be musicalized. As demonstrated by the recent black box production at Wright State University (WSU), the show possesses a challenging modern score and themes relevant to today's audiences.

Like the film version written by Daniel Waters, Heathers: The Musical centers on Veronica, an intelligent student at Westerberg High in Ohio, who is just looking to make it through her senior year. Veronica thinks she has it made when she's allowed to hang out with the three most popular girls in school (all named Heather) after saving them from detention. Her popularity comes at a cost though, and new boy in town JD helps her see the moral and emotional damage of the trio. He also brings her unwittingly into the practice of killing some classmates and staging it to make it look like suicide. Veronica is suddenly at a crossroads with extremely high stakes, and difficult choices to make.

The book and score are by Laurence O'Keefe (Bat Boy, Legally Blonde) and Kevin Murphy (Reefer Madness). The storytelling maintains the tone of black comedy, and properly balances between the absurd ridiculousness of some of the behavior and situations, while also addressing universal/timely issues still important to teenagers and young adults in 2016. Musical theater songs allow for extra introspection by characters, so both the intense desperation and the whacky weirdness of the story are exaggerated—sometimes to the benefit and sometimes to the detriment to the plot. The opening song, "Beautiful," is a powerful introduction to the environment and culture of the school and skillfully introduces the characters, all with a catchy pop melody full of bravado. The rest of the score, however, isn't quite up to the level of the opener. The heavily pop, musical theater score contains some effective music reminiscent of Bat Boy at times, but also a few instantly unmemorable melodies. The lyrics are also decidedly mixed, with some great insightful and witty wordplay right next to some lazy writing. Absurdity doesn't mean that the craft has to be sacrificed, but it is at times with this score.

Wright State University again shows it's one of the lesser known gems of collegiate musical theater programs, with a lot of talent on display in this studio production. Maddie Vaughn provided nuanced acting, expressive non-verbals, and wonderful vocal gymnastics as Veronica. She applied her belt in the many pop-style numbers delightfully, and allowed the nerdy goofiness to bubble up as she attempted to mimic the plastic perfectness of the Heathers. As JD, Kyle Miller sang with clarity and skill, while capturing the appropriately brooding and unbalanced intensity of the character.

Natalie Girard, Emma Buchman, and Alejandria Soli all showed off exemplary singing (including more powerful belting) as the three Heathers. Ms. Soli and Ms. Girard both embodied the intense, fierce bitchiness of their characters. Ms. Buchman conveyed the multiple layers of the :Heather with a soul" through her facial expressions and was magnificent in delivering the heartbreaking "Lifeboat." Other noteworthy performances were turned in by Isabella Andrews (Martha) and Emily Chodan (Ms. Fleming), but the entire cast did a great job of committing to their roles and executing the material.

Director Jamie Cordes provided active and suitable staging throughout, and ensured that his performers provided solid and consistent characterizations. He made good use of the performance space as well, including two small, modular staircases. The dances by Megan Valle captured the youthful and sexual themes of the story, and were visually appealing. Sherri Sutter and Jeff Powell served as music directors, and both the four-piece band and singers were well-prepared.

Set designer Pam Knauret Lavernway supplied a simple two-level stage, along with the aforementioned modular staircases, all of which served the show well. The lighting by Emily Hope and Jennifer Watson included some apt projections, and the costumes by Courtney Zimmerman reflected the styles of the period and the film.

Heathers: The Musical is likely to connect with many young theatergoers, so it's an apt choice for a college to perform, especially one with the talent of WSU to pull it off well. It communicates the message that, though we are all damaged, we're also capable of becoming "beautiful." Though the show, as written, is a bit mixed in quality, Wright State's production was a superb one.

The musical played in the Herbst Theatre at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, from November 18 – December 4, 2016.


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