The script for HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL is so last century that it’s hard to believe it was created in 2010 and opened off-Broadway in 2014. Yes, it’s based on HEATHERS, the cult movie classic of 1988 starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannon Doherty, but some things just don’t play well in 2015, like jokes about teen suicide and mass school shootings and gay stereotypes. Or maybe it’s just that setting dark humor to music makes it seem more unsavory than ironic.
Vulcan Lyric, the newly reconceived City Center Opera, has chosen to do HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL as part of its summer music festival, and that may not have been the best choice to get the company off the ground. While I am a strong supporter of another operatic company in Philadelphia, especially one that wants to fill the summer months with music, and make use of the Prince Theater (recently renamed from the Prince Music Theater), and there’s nothing wrong with edgy theater, this particular production may not have been the right selection for an inaugural season. In other words, I can appreciate the effort while at the same time questioning the result.
For those who haven’t seen the movie: The story begins with a traditional narrative and then goes off the rails. The usual mean girl clique—three girls named Heather who rule the school (Hanna Gaffney as Heather Chandler, the leader, Katie Johantgen as Heather Mcnamara, and Sara Moya as Heather Duke) adopt nerdy Veronica (Loulu Luzi) and ask her to turn on her best friend Martha Dunnstock (Lindsay Ronaldson, who shines as the innocent who can’t believe people are really that mean). At first Veronica hesitates, but eventually goes along for the sake of being popular. Then she meets Jason “J.D.” Dean (Nate Golden) who beats up the two school jocks (Joe Chubb as Kurt Kelly and Adam Kaster as Rom Sweeney) and she is in love. Luzi as Veronica is gutsy and innocent, and Golden is a definitely sketchy J.D, the tormented teen who sets everything in motion. But as the romance between them heats up the body count starts to rise, and the angst of high school turns into something dark and dangerous that even the musical numbers can’t brighten.
The production itself was earnest, but suffered from some growing pains attendant upon a new company learning to work in a new space. Although the Prince Theater was once home to musical productions, on the night I saw the show, the sound design interfered with the final production, voices were distorted or muffled through the mics that everyone wore. The performers were young and eager and for the most part believably high school—although the jocks were a little bit less buff than expected.
The other shows in the festival are more traditionally operatic, but it’s nice to see a company willing to take a chance on another music form that fits into general director Andrew Kurtz’s concept of “drama that is sung.” It will be interesting to see how they evolve over time.
HEATHERS is part of the VULCAN LYRIC FESTIVAL [Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street] July 30-August 16, 2015; vulcanlyric.com