Oh sure, now we can laugh about high school the further removed we are from those angsty teen years.
In the audacious “Heathers: The Musical,” our heroine Veronica refers to Westerberg High as “Thunderdome.” And that’s an apt funny-sad description, for this stage version mines both the humor and the pain of the brutal social hierarchy inside those nondescript halls.
In New Line Theatre’s bold regional premiere, a fearless cast and crew is able to achieve a balance in tone that transcends vulgar lyrics and shock-value scenarios. Screenwriter Daniel Waters first took aim at the beautiful and popular, but very mean, girls that ruled school in a subversive black comedy in 1988 that is now a cult classic. The 2013 musical, which also goes to outrageous lengths to skewer the cliques and conformity, features book, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe (“Legally Blonde”) and Kevin Murphy (“Reefer Madness”), and remains set in the ’80s.
Veronica, so desperate to be accepted her senior year, sells her soul basically to hang out with the cool-girl royalty, all named Heather. But when she has a falling out with the leader, a drain cleaner mix-up — suggested by unhinged new beau J.D. — results in a dead schoolgirl, a faked suicide note and a copycat effect. When Veronica finally realizes how unstable J.D. is, the body count has risen and threatens to go higher.
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After Columbine and Sandy Hook, and widespread incidents of bullying in American schools, “Heathers” has an eery predictive quality that feels all too familiar.
With an awareness of such issues, as well as a sly wink and a broad grin, co-directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy frame this jagged little pill in Reagan-Era Me Decade ephemera and infuse the characters with plenty of attitude. They understand that in order for the dark material to mean more than a typical coming-of-age flashback, the characters can’t be caricatures, and consciously steer away from camp. That gives the youngsters more emotional depth than initially drawn, resulting in dynamic performances and a show that doesn’t only entertain.
The pair have harmoniously collaborated on a number of neglected musicals that needed New Line’s nurturing to thrive, and with their astonishing attention to detail, polish “Heathers” into a bright-colored gem. They have fluidly staged it on Rob Lippert’s functional geometric-shaped set so that the ensemble keeps moving.
Beneath the big hair, shoulder pads and gaudy colors, the perfectly-cast actors adroitly depict their character quirks. As smart but insecure Veronica, Anna Skidis is at her best, fully conveying the carnival ride that is age 17. Skidis has powerful pipes and an inherent vulnerability yet strength that vigorously comes through on standout numbers “Beautiful” and “Seventeen.”
She’s matched by an intense turn by a never-better Evan Fornachon as the homicidal loner J.D., whom Veronica falls hard for after a Slurpee enticement (“Freeze Your Brain”). Fornachon and Skidis played troubled lovers Roger and Mimi in New Line’s “Rent” last year, and their trust developed by working with each other aids their combustible relationship here. Their “Our Love Is God” and “Dead Girl Walking” numbers are robustly delivered.
The triple threat of Sicily Mathenia, Larissa White and Cameisha Cotton as the three glowing hellcats — Heather Chandler, Heather McNamara and Heather Duke — have a blast being nasty and naughty. As the airhead Heather, the luminous White is not as alpha horrible, so when her character has a meltdown regarding peer pressure, she evokes much feeling in the poignant “Lifeboat.”
Mathenia and Cotton are impressive in their New Line debuts, as is Grace Seidel, who delivers a bracing “Wow” moment with the heartfelt “Kindergarten Boyfriend.” She plays Martha, the nerdy, chubby girl mocked by all the cool kids, who was Veronica’s best friend before she began running with the Heathers.
As the insufferable jocks Ram and Kurt, Omega Jones and Clayton Humburg are nervy and undaunted, particularly in their tighty whities, brassy and sassy with “Blue” (emphasizing how adult this show really is).
Multiple grown-up roles are adroitly handled by Joel Hackbarth, Chris Kernan and Lindsey Jones, with the guys bringing the house down with “My Dead Gay Son.”
The choreography by Robin Michelle Berger is sprightly and decade-appropriate, while music director Jeffrey Richard Carter and conductor Sue Goldford keep the tempo brisk and bright.
The lighting by Kenneth Zinkl and the costumes by Sarah Porter elevate this show as well.
“Heathers” has much to recommend, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Yet, the good-hearted efforts make it more hopeful at the end. And it’s indeed one of the standouts of the year.
- Who: New Line Theatre
- When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through Oct. 24
- Where: The Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis (Grand Center, north end)
- Information: www.newlinetheatre.org
- MetroTix: 314-534-1111