Heathers is a landmark teen film, a pitch-black comedy that takes a boldly deadpan look at the various forms of psychosis that lurk in a traditional suburban high school. It’s a movie about the monstrous secrets beneath all manner of facades, and despite its reputation as a big-hair camp classic, it’s brimming with nuance and subtly smart observations. Heathers: The Musical misses just about everything that made the film great, making it not only a colossally disappointing adaptation of a beloved property but also a generally unpleasant theater experience.
Heathers: The Musical, now playing at Off Broadway’s New World Stages, had the pedigree to be something quite special. First, there’s the 1989 film, which made stars out of Christian Slater and Winona Ryder. Then there’s Kevin Murphy and Laurence O?Keefe, who wrote book, music, and lyrics and whose credits include such brilliant outside-the-box shows as Reefer Madness and Bat Boy.
Unfortunately, the show runs into story problems almost immediately. The tale is told through Veronica (Barrett Wilbert Weed), a 17-year-old outcast at Westerburg High School who finds herself embraced by the most popular clique at school: A trio of well-dressed girls who all have the name, Heather. It’s clear why the Heathers want to roll with Veronica, as her forgery skills are valuable. But why does Veronica bother with them? Since we never get the chance to see Veronica pine for popularity, her intentions always seem muddled, even when she decides to try to upend the collective from within. Ryder’s Veronica, on the other hand, always had clear motivations.
Those kinds of inconsistencies between the source material and the adaptation wouldn’t be a problem if Heathers: The Musical felt like its own entity, but it chooses to stay painfully tethered to the movie. In fact, the plot often seems to hinge on the audience’s knowledge of the movie, rendering the plot basically inexplicable to anybody who didn’t do their homework. That’s especially problematic when moody loner J.D. (Ryan McCartan doing a Slater impression) shows up to seduce Veronica into a world of revenge that quickly escalates to murder. When the stage version gradually does break away from its source, it does it in all the wrong ways: Veronica and J.D. have a traditional love-ballad romance, which undercuts the subtle moral tension of the original and makes it a clear black-and-white division once J.D. goes off the deep end. And one of the reasons why people find Heathers so smart is because there are no heroes?everyone in the orbit of Westerburg High is a heel. In Heathers: The Musical, even the murderous J.D. gets cheap and inexplicable redemption.
Story issues can be saved by a top-shelf score, but the songs all play like wheels-spinning book numbers, especially in the plodding second act. Still, Veronica’s anthem ”Dead Girl Walking” builds nicely and Weed delivers it with righteous venom. And the second-act oasis ”Lifeboat,” performed by a suicidal Heather McNamara (Elle McLemore), is a surprising blend of dark and sweet.
But perhaps the most offensive aspect of Heathers: The Musical is the strange sense of entitlement in director Andy Fickman’s production. Most of the show is delivered with an air of smugness, as though the audience is supposed to adore it simply because it exists. That’s especially ramped up whenever one of the movie’s zeitgeisty lines?especially the timeless ”F— me gently with a chainsaw”?gets delivered, always with a broad ”Can you believe we’re doing this?” smirk that undercuts the scene. Weed tries to keep Heathers: The Musical afloat with an admirable performance (she’s basically the only cast member not doing an impression), but she cannot overcome the show’s core villain: the production itself. C?