Encore Michigan

Cult hit “Heathers: The Musical” will slay you gently with a chainsaw at the Ringwald

Review May 15, 2016 Jenn McKee

FERNDALE, Mich.–In Shakespeare, ambitious men vie for crowns. In Heathers, the stage musical adaptation of the 1988 film now on stage at the Ringwald Theatre, it’s all about the red scrunchie.

Is it facetious to compare a teen-angsty black comedy, packed with pop culture references and profanity, with Elizabethan drama? After revisiting “Heathers” at Ringwald’s sold-out opening night, I’d argue “no.” High school, when you’re an adolescent, is its own brutal, bloody battlefield, with alliances that are made and broken daily; this is likely why, though the original movie tanked at the box office, Heathers nonetheless endured to become a cult hit.

Want proof? Ringwald’s opening night performance of Heathers: The Musical was sold out, and the enthusiastic crowd wasn’t solely made up of nostalgic Gen-Xers out for a fun night in Ferndale. To wit, Heathers doesn’t just have scrunchies and shoulder pads; it has legs.

The story follows Veronica (Jordan Gagnon), who lives within the broad gap between popular and outcast at Westerberg High until her forging abilities catch the attention of the super-popular Heathers: cruel alpha Heather Chandler (Vince Kelley); bulimic, striving Heather Duke (Kelly Eubank); and rich head cheerleader Heather McNamara (Annie Kordas). Veronica grows uneasy with her newfound popularity when the Heathers pressure her to play a trick on Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (Lily Belle Czartorski), and a darkly mysterious new kid named J.D. (Chris Morriss). Veronica falls hard for J.D., but soon, she must decide exactly how far she’s willing to go to make Westerberg High a less toxic environment.

Directed by Brandy Joe Plambeck, the Ringwald’s production, which runs just over two hours, will delight Heathers fans. Yes, a bit of the film’s bleak atmosphere and nihilistic bite is undercut by way of its translation into a musical – Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy wrote the show’s book, music, and lyrics – but its sharp-tongued, satiric core is still intact.

Plus, the Ringwald has a fantastic, larger-than-life “alpha Heather” in Kelley, who physically towers over the others while striding around the stage in high heels, and delivers the nastiest lines with such hilarious relish and sass that find yourself wishing he’d never leave the stage. Gagnon potently conveys Veronica’s no-holds-barred passion, and sense of social free-fall, in “Dead Girl Walking”; and “Seventeen,” in which she pleads with J.D. to let them both be kids while they can be, is the show’s emotional centerpiece.
Other highlights include Czartorski’s powerhouse rendering of “Kindergarten Boyfriend”; the super-campy ensemble number, “My Dead Gay Son”; and “Candy Store,” the Heather triumvirate’s hysterical introduction statement, endowed with extra oomph (and laughs) by way of Jill Dion’s witty choreography.

Bethany Caldarona oversees the show’s music direction, but at times – because the production uses a recorded score – the music overwhelmed the vocals on opening night. The show’s scenic design, by Jennifer Maiseloff, captures the institutional feel of a past-its-expiration-date high school hallway that has washed out color blocking and a couple of small banks of lockers (one of which folds down for other uses). Plambeck also designed the show’s lighting, which casts the show’s darkest moments in expressionistic blues and reds, and makes the final, suspenseful pep rally look likes it’s happening inside a dark cave; and Vince Kelley had a ball designing the show’s costumes, complete with the Heathers’ (and Veronica’s) trademark blazers with short skirts, and Martha’s cat-emblazoned shirt.

What would someone who hasn’t seen the original movie think of Heathers: The Musical? I can’t say for sure, of course. (I watched it repeatedly as a college student.) My guess is that the story, and its caustic tone, would win newbies over.

But those who will likely fall the hardest for “Heathers: The Musical,” of course, are those who embraced the cult hit long ago; the fans who wait for “alpha Heather” to spit out classic lines like, “What’s your damage?” and “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?”

No matter where we landed in the popularity spectrum in high school, we all had our critics, our haters. And Heathers offers us all a revenge fantasy, taken to its darkest ends. Maybe that’s why it eventually found, and grew, an audience. Through it, we can safely watch a violent, satirical fantasy play out, and thus confront the idea that even when “the bad apples” are removed, others well into rotting process will quickly replace them. So maybe the answer involves simply choosing the best ones available. Even if they have a penchant for cat shirts.

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