By Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, based on the film by Daniel Waters. Blackout Theatre Company. Director Jordan Anderson. Pioneer Theatre Castle Hill. 20 – 29 October, 2023
Reviewed : 20 October, 2023*
Coming to this production ‘cold’ but having been advised of the ‘cult following’ of the movie on which it is based, I was still surprised by the exhilaration of the audience and their exuberant reaction to the characters and the music. The theatre vibrated with an air of expectation as the house lights faded. It was clear that most of the audience was there to greet the production with enthusiastic joy – and Jordan Anderson and his cast and choreographers didn’t let them down.
The characters from the 1988 movie, transported to the musical stage by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, were there live on stage and ready to bring the dark themes and black humour of the story to strident, energetic, brutal life. The eagerness of the audience was reflected in the vibrance of the performers, who hit the notes of “Beautiful” with professional pace and power – to the unbridled joy of the audience!
Anderson has approached the production with entertainment as the ‘sugar coated’ key that opens the door to the nastiness that gnaws at the heart of Westerberg High, nastiness engendered by the Heathers, a triumvirate of tartan-clad tartars who wield the power of ridicule and denigration. Boys bow to their beck and call; girls long to belong rather than being belittled. Only one of them – Veronica Sawyer – dares to break her way into the clique, admitting it’s just to get through high school without being demeaned!
Jenna Woolley plays Veronica with a cool spite that is tempered by innate intelligence and common sense. She approaches the Heathers with subservient charm – and the ability to copy others’ handwriting – all the while sharing her disdain with them and herself in her diary – and thus the audience. Woolley brings all the attributes of triple threat training to this role. She creates a Veronica that is believable but can also dance and sing, holding the long notes of some of her songs, for example “Fight for Me” with seeming ease and remarkable power.
It is not until she is attacked by Heather Chandler’s “henchmen” Ram and Kurt and turns to dark newcomer Jason Dean (“JD”) that she turns her back on her conscience and becomes part of his plan to eradicate Westerberg of the tyranny of the tartans.
JD is played with cruel charm by Aleks Justin. In a long black trench coat he steals into the high school scene from a murky life following his “de-construction” worker father in explosive jobs around America. He’s calm, cool, insightful and attractive – and Veronica is taken in by his ‘maturity’ and confidence. Unfortunately he is also vicious and sadistic and has no qualms about involving her in his plan to ‘cleanse’ the tenor of the school. Justin too has a great voice and their duet segments in “Our Love is God” are very moving.
As Heather Chandler, Katie Staddon strides powerfully on to the stage, much to the delight of the audience, who greet the character with cheers. In red tartan (of course) red knee boots and lots of swagger and sneers, Staddon epitomises the ‘girl gang’ leader’s queen status perfectly. With her off-siders, envious (green tartan!) wannabe leader Heather Duke (Claire Hutchison) and less assured (yellow tartan!) Heather McNamara (Haley McCudden), she lays down the law in “Candy Store”.
Tim Drummond and Will Smith have a ball playing Chandler’s (not so) heavy henchmen Ram and Kurt. Both have fine voices and also relish the suggestive, snaky dance moves devised for them by choreographers Daniella Giles and Lauren McKinnon.
Giles and McKinnon have chosen choreography to augment the darkness and mood of the music, stretching the performers with quick freezes and fast twists and turns in keeping with the malevolence of the story – and effectively raising the excitement of the audience. A piece of choreography that lingers with me for its planning and direction is a slow-motion fight between Drummond, Smith and Justin. Those three and the whole cast, arranged at different levels around the stage, move with perfect precision and control, keeping long, difficult freezes in a routine that creates stunning tension and tenseness.
Breaking the darkness of Heathers along with Drummond and Smith, are flamboyant teacher Ms Fleming, played with lovely comedic skill by Fiona Brennan, and the various Dads of the teenagers played by Simon Buchner and Tim Walsh. Their rendition of “My Dead Gay Son” is poignant as well as funny.
The themes in Heathers cover many of the problems that teenagers might face – bullying, homophobia, sexual assault, teen suicide, eating disorders, even murder. That they are covered in a way that makes them real but unacceptable is a credit to the writers. That they are tempered with black humour, loud, strong music and fast dancing takes some of the edge off the malice. That there is a suggestion of optimism doesn’t take away from the fact that the problems imagined by Daniel Waters back in 1988 continue and escalate … 30 years after the movie opened, and over 10 years after the musical was first performed.
Jordan Anderson’s production will meet every hope of Heathers fans – as well as keeping strong the messages about teenage angst, anger, anxiety … and fear.