Look: No one wants to be the person who says that Heathers: The Musical works. You shouldn’t be able to take a cult classic movie, throw in a few snappy songs and the quote “my teen-angst bullshit has a body count” in for good measure, and call it a day. That’s just too cheap a move. And yeah, bulimia may be “so ‘87”, but you can already hear the faint choir of movie loyalists retching through theater bathroom stalls everywhere.
But before I go on any further, I’ll tell you now that I am, in fact, that person. I am the person who is going to tell you that despite all the odds and higher powers against it, Kokandy Productions’s Heathers: The Musical is a bloody phenomenon.
Trademarked by its teenage insecurity and Corn Nuts, Heathers may be the musical Chicago deserves and definitely needs right now. If you somehow missed the ’89 Winona Ryder vehicle, the premise revolves around one Veronica Sawyer (Courtney Mack), high school misfit born with the gift of wit and a symmetrical face. Due to her wild knack for forgery and a willingness to don preppy ‘80’s blazers, Veronica manages to get in with the Heathers (Jacquelyne Jones, Haley Jane Schafer, and Rochelle Therrien), the top it-bitches in the school, and finally gains a semblance of hierarchical acceptance. Despite the fact that she had to trade in her outcast BFF Martha “Dump Truck” (Teressa LaGamba) for a clique of girls she despises, Veronica finds solace in hormones and teen rebel/new boy, J.D. (Chris Ballou). This comfort, however, becomes a ticking time bomb when her new boy toy coincidentally has a penchant for literal bombs.
Heathers is the direct product of a pre-Columbine, Bush Sr. Administration, Winona Forever generation psyche – a homicidal dark comedy that unabashedly pokes fun at the fucked up high school feudal system. Because of this – and especially because we now live in an Obama, gun happy America – the show itself is consistently walking an exceedingly thin line between being pleasantly kitsch and being flat-out tacky. And admittedly, there are many instances where that line is almost crossed with a flourish: The top of the show where Veronica is belting out how she believes “life can be beautiful” if only everyone could just get along! Songs about suicide sandwiched between songs about blue balls! (Both excellent numbers, but still) And the ending. Oh that ending! Spoiler alert, but there is no badass Winona smoking the remains of her now-dead boyfriend. Instead there’s a song about being happy and seventeen and burning red scrunchies – perhaps a nod to some turn-of-the-century, High School Musical-esque optimism? Yeah, gag me with a damn spoon.
The saccharine notes nearly hearken to a mediocre rendition of the film Mean Girls, which is a shame considering the fact that Heathers was the original Mean Girls. But before it can commit to that offense – and before you begin to second-guess dropping your cash on a Heathers musical – the production takes off on a life of its own. In a way, it becomes a separate entity from the film yet with all the coy nods any loyalist would desire. Salty, crass, and dripping with neon-infused,1980s pop culture, this is the stuff musical theater should be made of. It’s not Winona-badass, no, but it’s still badass.
And there’s nothing like seeing the Heathers at the top of the show, coiffed in a vision of pure sex, candy, and scrunchie. Leading the pack, Jacquelyne Jones is the perfect satirical Barbie from Hell as Heather Chandler. Her special brand of teenage evil and gloat makes her every bit as worthy to don the infamous red scrunchie. Needless to say, she is indeed the ideal actress to play the girl who her subjects either want to “friend or fuck”. Even with the majesty that is Ms. Jones’s performance, the real sugar atop of the Diet Coke is Courtney Mack and Chris Ballou – a dream team of palpable chemistry. Ms. Mack has all the wide-eyed gritty charisma that every Winona fan admires. Yet, she also manages to seize the role on her own terms. She’s raw, beautiful, and totally worth your attention, so definitely keep an eye out because she deserves it. Meanwhile, Mr. Ballou – good gravy. He makes the character of J.D. impossibly charming while increasingly sociopathic in the best way. With the sincerity he (and Ms. Mack) show in songs like “Our Love Is God”, you can actually see his worship eating Veronica Sawyer alive. Let me put it this way: I might grab the Drain-O and pistol too if J.D. were my boyfriend.
Helmed by music and lyric team Kevin Murphy (Reefer Madness, Desperate Housewives) and Laurence O’Keefe (Bat Boy, Legally Blonde), the cult-fever satire truly is strong in this one. Plus, with a masterful direction by James Beaudry, choreography from Sawyer Smith, and an ensemble as solid as the synth board lovingly blared by music director Kory Danielson, yeah, it’ll make you think that the Chicago premiere of this musical is long overdue. I agree. But in a way, that’s okay, because I cannot imagine a better start to this cult legacy outside of Kokandy’s production. But when all is said and done, is Heathers going to the prom or to Hell? At this point, it really doesn’t matter, because apparently I’m going straight down with it.
Heathers: The Musical is running at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Avenue, until April 24th. Show times are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 P.M., with 3:00 P.M. performances on Saturdays and Sundays (for the exception of Saturday, 4/2 and 4/9, where there are only evening performances, and Sunday 4/3, where there’s an additional 7:30 P.M. performance). Tickets are $38 and may be bought online, in person at the Theater Wit box office, or by calling (773) 975-8150.