Hilarity, homicide and hope

Heathers: The Musical (Millennial Productions)

Ron Hurley Theatre

April 1 – 10

From the moment that the Heathers of its title, make appearance in iconic pose, it is clear that Millennial Productions’ “Heathers: The Musical” is going to be a slick show… a slick show about dark issues, including bullying, teen suicide, sexual assault and school violence. And what makes this realisation of the rock musical such a success is the way that it leans into the irony inbuilt into Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s book and does not shy from the sensitive topics and risqué aspects of the problematic text.

Based on the 1988 film, the darkly delicious story of slushies, sex and suicide is of social misfit Veronica Sawyer (Erika Naddei), a senior at the fictional Westerberg High, who finds herself finally accepted by the powerful and ruthless Thunderdome clique of Heathers (played by Chelsea Sales, Josie Ross and Marguerite Du Plessis) who rule the school… that is until she falls into a toxic relationship with dangerously-sexy new loner, J.D (Elliot Gough) and is manipulated from revenge into murder.

Full of iconic lines from the cult film, O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s music and lyrics pay tribute to school tropes and the story’s black comedy alike and precise direction by Kade O’Rourke paces things along through moods of hilarity, heartfeltness and homicide. Indeed, like “Beetlejuice”, “Heathers: The Musical” makes death fun in the way only musicals can and this production rejoices in it.

The soundtrack contains a diverse range of numbers from the satirical to dramatic and high-energy, all set against the world of teenage angst. Sales, Ross and Du Plessis’s harmonies in their ‘Candy Store’ malicious temptation of Veronica with the promise of popularity, are infectiously sassy. And homecoming party anthem ‘Big Fun’ is a catchy Act One highlight.

There are no vocal weak links as each performer is given an opportunity to shine. AJ Betts elicits empathy as Martha Dunnstock, the Heathers’ main object of ridicule and Veronica’s best friend since diapers, showcasing a sweet voice in the heart-breaking ‘Kindergarten Boyfriend’ and Ross gives us a fierce ‘Never Shut Up Again’ upon her ascension to the social alpha role (complete with assumption of its signature red scrunchie) and an impressive onstage costume transition. ‘Dead Girl Walking’ illustrates Nadei’s powerful vocals. Her incredible range is shown through the sad yearning of the ballad ‘Seventeen’, and its hopeful reprise, and the determined resolve of ‘I Say No’.

The production is filled with strong performances, with nobody holding back even in edgier scenes. Naddei and Gough’s chemistry sees them bouncing off each other effectively and Naddei, in particular, is faultless as the wry and clever heroine, whether giggly and enamoured by JD’s compelling dark charisma or angered at realisation of the spiralling extent of his ultimately unbalanced world view.

There is a clear level of focus in all performances, resulting in no missed beats within the show’s tight rhythm. Sales is immediately formidable as the ‘mythic bitch’ Heather Chandler and, of her minions, Du Plessis is simply wonderful as the naive and actually quite vulnerable head cheerleader Heather McNamara. Brandon Taylor-Cotton and Matt Domingo are convincing as entitled dumb jocks Ram and Kurt and even Ian De Luna, in his stage debut, makes ensemble roles such as ‘preppy stud’ memorable through entertaining animation.

All performers maintain their distinct characterisations throughout, even in group performance of ‘Shine a Light’ as part of guidance counsellor Ms Fleming’s (Emily Rohweder) televised therapy assembly and urge to everyone to reveal their fears and insecurities in response to the school’s recent run of tragedies. It is just unfortunate that they appear to be let down by some microphone, spotlight and sound lapses in early sections and microphone levels that result in some overpowering and indistinct Heathers exclamations.

Perry Sanders’ lighting design is, however, also one of the most striking aspects of this production. There is plenty of colour work, with red, green and yellow spotlights highlighting the presence of each of the Heathers. The quick, contrasting lighting cues direct the audience to not only important narrative aspects, but their underlying themes, whether it be JD’s murderous intent or the spotlit blue hues that signpost character appearance from the afterlife. And lighting only enhances the theme of celebration emphasised in the show’s encore.

The exaggerated stereotypes that characterise the campy romp are also stressed by candy-coloured costumes (costume, wig and makeup designer Taylor Andrews) that both capture the iconography that fans of the film expect and entice new devotees into the fold. Each character has a consistent individual style, beyond just the Chanel-esque schoolgirl outfits. The most brilliant contribution to the show’s success, however, comes courtesy of Lauren Bensted’s lively choreography which is filled with nuanced detail and recurring motifs, effectively executed by all members of the ensemble. One noteworthy example is during Act Two’s crowd-favourite opener, ‘My Dead Gay Son’, in which Josh Lovell prances about in gospel-esque jubilation, making it even more unfortunate that he was without working microphone for most of its duration.

Millennial Productions’ debut musical is a visually captivating show, colourful and dynamic from start to finish, and one of the best and most professional independent productions I have reviewed in a long time. If it had live orchestra accompaniment, it could easily take its place on the QPAC stage. Judging by the ongoing enthusiastic response from the audience (including a well-deserved standing ovation), it seems many others also agree. And to be left with its ultimate message of hope beyond its flawed characters, is simply beautiful.

Photos c/o – Clear Image Photography

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