Way back in my high school days, I remember being told that one day, I’d come to view those years as among the best of my life.
Uh … seriously? What was it about high school that I was expected to miss, exactly? The guys who barked at me as I walked down the hallway from my locker, or the girls who openly criticized my wardrobe? Perhaps the rampant acne, or the hormones? Or the invisibility that was maddeningly paired with bursts of intense scrutiny?
No, I was more than ready to leave high school in 1989 – which was, coincidentally, the year that the cult dark comedy movie “Heathers” (starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater) was released. As college freshmen, my friends and I watched video cassette copies of it in our dorm rooms and quoted from it with abandon.
So color me stoked when I learned that the satiric teen film had been adapted into a stage musical (by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy) that premiered in Los Angeles, and then Off-Broadway, in 2013; and Ann Arbor Civic Theatre recently provided locals with a pretty great opportunity to check out the irreverently filthy, witty, violent, and bittersweet show for themselves.
“Heathers”’ story focuses on Veronica (Emily Courcy), a wryly smart but overlooked girl who one day uses her forgery talents to help get the school’s three most popular girls, all named Heather, out of trouble. Shortly after Veronica’s invited to join the power clique, she meets a caustic, Baudelaire-quoting, trench-coat-wearing new guy named JD (Andrew Buckshaw), who intrigues her. But at a party, when the Alpha Heather (Samantha Torres) is about to humiliate Veronica’s old misfit friend Martha (Zoe VanSlooten), Veronica intervenes, placing herself in Alpha Heather’s sights.
The next morning, Veronica goes to Heather’s house to grovel, but when JD distracts her, she accidentally serves Heather toxic drain cleaner instead of the requested hangover cure. JD and Veronica end up forging a suicide note, along with Heather’s copy of “The Bell Jar” – but things only spin further out of control from there, as JD’s dark plan to make the world a better place shifts into high gear.
It should go without saying that A2CT’s production, directed by Ron Baumanis, was decidedly not appropriate for kids. With a spirited (but empoweringly feminist) on-stage sex scene between Veronica and JD (“Dead Girl Walking”), and the kind of puffed up, dirty, baseless sexual bragging that some high school boys will always do (“Blue (Reprise)” and “Blue Playoff”) – not to mention Hayden Reboulet, who, as Ram, happily wore nothing but tighty-whities throughout the second act – the show stays true to its edgy roots.
This alone would cause most community theater groups to avoid “Heathers,” of course, but A2CT is distinctive in a few ways: it has a broad local talent pool to draw from (including lots of young people); it serves a community that’s often willing to take a chance on new material; and it’s cashed in on that openness over the years by taking risks and producing some dark, edgy shows.
Inevitably, some will stay away from these less-than-wholesome shows; but on the other hand, when I watched “Heathers” at the Mendelssohn Theater last Friday night, there were empty seats, yes, but I also saw far more young people in the crowd than I usually see. By a longshot. And they were exuberant in their responses to boot. So credit A2CT and Baumanis for offering something different, and potentially attracting an elusive demographic to the theater.
For what it’s worth, those who came were, indeed, rewarded. There’s a lot of exposition to absorb in the show’s opening number, “Beautiful,” and I struggled to discern the storytelling lyrics during the number; but once the nasty Heathers anthem “Candy Store” kicks into gear, in step with Patty Mazzola’s crisp choreography, we were off and running.
In supporting roles, VanSlooten provided the show with some heart via her number “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” and Amy VanDyke, as the most emotionally fragile Heather, conveyed her character’s vulnerability near the show’s end by way of “Lifeboat.” But it’s Torres and Courcy who made the biggest impression on me Friday night. Torres charismatically embued Heather Chandler, Westerberg High’s godhead, with unshakable confidence and attitude, while also offering up strong vocals; and Courcy was the linchpin upon which everything hung. It’s not an easy role. Veronica’s a smart character who nonetheless keeps getting seduced by evil, both in the form of Heathers and JD, and she almost never leaves the stage during the nearly two and a half hour show. But Courcy pulled it off, and her numbers with Buckshaw – particularly “Our Love is God” and “Seventeen” – were among the night’s finest and most memorable.
“Heathers”’ set was spare, featuring just a small, central square screen for Baumanis’ projections, to help place us in different locations, and an additional vertical screen (with two rows of bleachers below) on each side, which lighting designer Thom “TJ” Johnson regularly illuminated with color. Music director Daniel Bachelis led the production’s tight orchestra, and costume designer Molly Borneman captured the spirit of these characters, and their era, without letting it veer into self-consciousness.
Of course, “Heathers” touches on some really hard, painful things (bullying, violence, mental illness, suicide) in a joking way, so I understand why some chose to stay away. But all I could think about, while watching the show unfold Friday, is that there may have never been a better time for “Heathers” than right now.
For it seems like we, as a country, are in Veronica’s position right now. We can follow JD’s destructive path; we can join the Heathers and abuse our power, simply because we can; or we can resist these options, re-locate our humanity, be kind to each other, and just “be seventeen” – which is to say, hold on to a little bit of hope.
This last option would be so very.