Full Review: HEATHERS The Musical

by Lynn on September 27, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

Emma Sangalli
Photo: Scott Gorman


At Hart House Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy

Based on the film (1989) written by Daniel Waters.

Directed by Jennifer Walls

Musical director, Giustin MacLean

Choreographer, Amanda Nuttall

Set by Brendan Kleiman

Costumes by Erin Frances Gerofsky

Lighting and projections by Melissa Joakim

Cast: Hunter Agnew

Rose-Ingrid Benjamin

Moulan Bourke

Mary Bowden

Aaron Cadesky

Paige Foskett

Becka Jay

Wade Minacs

Justan Myers

Emma Sangalli

Mark J. Umphrey


Taha Arshad

Justine DeSouza

Connor Ferris

Maggie Gallagher

Fay Gamliel

Jacob Moro

Bohdan Onushko

Madison Sekulin

Allison Leia Wall

In spite of a production with a talented cast with strong voices, lively direction by Jennifer Walls and energetic choreography by Amanda Nuttall, in today’s social awareness, Heathers the Musical is hideous.

The Story. Veronica Sawyer is a 17-year-old high school student who is desperate to fit into the ‘in’ crowd known as “the Heathers”—three young women, all named Heather, who are supremely confident, beautiful and are envied for it. The Heathers are also cruel. They never met another insecure kid (either boy or girl) they couldn’t bully, degrade or manipulate for their own pleasure. Veronica is one of their targets to taunt. Martha Dunnstock is another. Martha believes one of the boys in high school has liked her since kindergarten when he kissed her all those years before. The three mean girls are going to play a trick on Martha by sending her a friendly note as if it came from that high school boy, inviting her to his party. The Heathers are going to use Veronica to write it—she’s a whiz at copying other people’s handwriting—saying that they will include her in their circle if she agrees to forge the note. They also give her a make-over to make her look more presentable to them. Veronica is so desperate for their favour she forges the note, even though she knows it’s cruel to Martha.

Veronica becomes friends with Jason “J.D” Dean, a mysterious, moody, Baudelaire- quoting teen in her class. He seems to have suffered a painful time growing up: mother has died, father is a bully and distant with his son. J.D. has his own ideas of how to rid the school of such cruel people as the Heathers, an idea that mortifies Veronica. Their friendship grows deeper with serious consequences.

Veronica’s high school seems a hot-bed of cruelty, body-shaming, manipulation, bullying and occasionally violence. The teachers are ineffectual or self-promoting and don’t care about the students. The parents are just as bad: absent, cold, critical without kindness and condescending. It all comes to a disastrous head.

 The Production. Director Jennifer Walls beautifully establishes the world of these teens from the minute the audience files into the theatre. Videos flash on a large screen at the back of the stage. Rock music blares out.

Set designer, Brandon Kleiman has created a set that consists of a wide bank of red stairs offering various levels on which to play. Of course Veronica would be impressed with the Heathers as they stand at the top of the bank of stairs and pose, looking down on their adoring minions. Jennifer Walls creates many moments like this with skill and confidence. The company charge up and down the stairs or dance on or in front of them. The always reliable choreographer, Amanda Nuttall has created choreography for her talented cast that establishes a breathless sense of momentum, pace and energy.

Writers Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s characters are one-dimensional for the most part and so the performances valiantly play that one dimension with commitment. Only the character of Veronica has dimension. Only Veronica has a voyage from yearning to join the Heathers, knowing in her heart they are hateful, to concern when she has embraced their mean ways and finally reaching enlightenment. As Veronica, Emma Sangalli clearly illuminates Veronica’s conflict when dealing with the Heathers and J.D. when she realizes how damaged and dangerous he is. Sangalli has a strong, beautiful voice as well.

Mary Bowden (Heather Chandler) Paige Foskett (Heather Duke) and Becka Jay (Heather McNamara) portray their cool, ‘care-less’ Heathers with lots of attitude and withering disdain. Justan Myers as Jason “J.D” Dean reveals J.D’s intelligence, confidence and quiet rage at the world. His character is frightening and Myers methodically, carefully builds on that.

The sound is a problem. While the rock score dictates that it should be played loud, the sound is so overly amplified (both the band and the cast are microphoned) and not properly balanced, that Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s lyrics are distorted and you can’t  be made out clearly. That’s not a good thing. But when the lyrics are read on line it’s one banal lyric after another.  And the music is not memorable; not a melody, or even a hint of a song, sticks in the memory.

 Comment.  Heathers The Musical is based on Heathers the 1989 cult film described as a dark comedy-satire. Interestingly the film’s director, Michael Lehmann (in a BBC Culture story by Emma Jones, Aug. 2018 on line) says: “…Heathers as a film could not work now—and it’s not necessarily because of the associations with suicide. It’s because of the violence in schools now and the way it’s often presented as a response to bullying….No one would want to make a comedy that touches on high school violence in that way.”

But that is what Heathers the Musical has done. In London, England it’s billed as an ‘hilarious comedy.” And that raucous laughter I heard roaring on opening night suggests that is the funny tone that writers Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy are going for.

Heathers The Musical concerns a checklist of teenage troubles: suicide, bullying, wanting to fit in, being ostracized, manipulation, cruelty, peer pressure, fear of being gay, attempted rape etc. unloving parents, ineffectual teachers. It all whizzes by without any deep exploration but lots of laughs. Is that the point? Hideous.

For O’Keefe and Murphy all the characters except Veronica are one dimensional. Not one teen evolves or grows in any way, except Veronica. There is not one caring adult. Parents are either condescending and negative to their children or dim. Teachers are ineffectual, ou tof their depth and have no talent for teaching teens.

It’s all written with a liberal dose of smarminess. It’s not good enough to be satire or smart enough to suggest a solution. The ending is simplistic slop. Veronica rushes forward, looking at the audience, her cast of characters behind her and sings they must stop the violence and bullying and that loving each other will stop the cycle of violence and all will be ‘beautiful.’  And it ends with everybody hugging each other. Ugh. Not earned.

Really? Love each other? Isn’t that what we say after every massacre when a crazed  person mows down innocent people on a sidewalk with his van; or shoots innocent people on the Danforth; or kids commit suicide because of bullying?

The message is sung to the converted! The message should be sung to the people who need it, standing behind Veronica,—those unrepentant bullies; those damaged kids with guns ready to blow away anyone they deem is bad; those cruel kids who dangle acceptance into their rarefied circle in front of kids who have to humiliate themselves to gain that odious acceptance.

The world has changed drastically since 1989. Society just won’t tolerate making light and jokes about the behaviour of the characters in Heathers the Musical.

Choosing to do this show in this day and age without a scintilla of attention and awareness to what is actually happening to our youth, is plain insensitive.

How about this: 1) Take the word HEATHERS. 2) Remove the “S”.  3) Now spell what’s left backwards: REHTAEH. 4) Now add the last name of PARSONS. 5) Rehtaeh Parsons was a teen from Nova Scotia who killed herself in 2013 because of bullying and on-line shaming, one year before Heathers The Musical was first produced Off-Broadway. You couldn’t avoid reading her name in the media, on social media and talking about it for months. As reported in various newspaper reports, Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, chose her daughter’s name of Heather and spelled it backwards because it sounded pretty. I couldn’t help NOT thinking about that fact while I watched Heathers the Musical. A hardworking, committed cast and crew for sure. But the material is hideous in light of a changing world and should be put permanently in a drawer.

Produced by Hart House Theatre

Opened: Sept. 21, 2018.

Closes:  Oct. 6, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes.


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