Heathers take black comedy to new heights

Heathers GigCity EdmontonHeathers was a 1989 black comedy starring the then-little known Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. Apparently ’80s audiences weren’t buying the film’s mordant anti-Pretty In Pink ethic and it flopped at the box office. But like many a cult film before, it rose from its cinematic ashes to become a hit on video.

Then in 2014, it was converted into a Broadway-style musical. As is the way of these things, the musical scrubbed up the sly source material somewhat, but the cautionary tale of what lethal things might happen to high school bullies remained. The music is catchy, the lyrics devilishly clever and scabrous enough that they won’t be quoted here – so don’t bring your grandma. The book is, well, kind of fun. There is even a sense of respect for the original material but all gussied up to make it palatable to musical comedy audiences.

For those who don’t mind their humour on the black side, this MacEwan University production is loaded with laughs, excellent performances, inventive and witty direction from Trevor Schmidt and the spirited give-it-all-you-got delivery that MacEwan is well known for.

In terms of approach, there is nothing like a musical about wayward teens being performed with youthful exuberance by a troupe of (almost) age appropriate players. The plot sees a trio of mean girls, all called Heather and known as the “lip-gloss Gestapo,” form a malevolent cabal. Their newest member is a misfit named Veronica (Michelle Diaz). She may be a nerd but she does control hall passes and other privileges. Veronica becomes a target and can’t stand the level of sadism practiced by the three, so she hooks up with moody school bad boy J.D. (Zachary Peterson) and becomes an unwilling Bonnie to his psychotic Clyde as he kills off the chief Heather (Hannah Myers – delightfully ill-natured and catty) and two sex-crazed jocks. In a bow to upbeat Broadway tradition (if not the movie’s sardonic roots) the dead pop up immediately to offer comment to the living.

Heathers GigCity EdmontonThis is the comic part of the show. It then turns really dark rather forcefully probing such problems as bullying, teen violence, suicide and sex. In the light of recent events, there may be an icky sense of discomfort in watching teens killing teens in high school, but if you can overcome that, the story, music, lyrics, clever direction and the gung-ho cast generally make it work. They were given superlative musical support by the Janice Flower-led quartet in the pit.

In the dress rehearsal we were permitted to watch, some of the sound balance was off and intonation showed an unfortunate tendency to waver, but there also were some strong voices and songs like Beautiful, Seventeen and Kindergarten Boyfriend (movingly sung by Morgan Donald) which were genuine show stoppers. And who could resist a rouser with the title, My Dead Gay Son.

Heathers: The Musical plays through April 9 the MacEwan University Theatre Lab.