Chicago Theatre Review
There’s a New Sheriff in Town
Heathers: the Musical – Kokandy Productions
What’s a teenage girl to do when she’s suddenly and unexpectedly courted and given a makeover by the most popular clique of her high school? The Heathers are a trio of chic, lovely, impeccably dressed, ultra-popular and powerful girls who pretty much control everyone and everything at Westerburg High School. The other students know them, wish they could be them and, yet, secretly fear them. This posse of poison-tongued pretties is led by their undisputed, outspoken leader, Heather Chandler, and her blindly adoring followers, the spineless cheerleader Heather McNamara and the quiet bookworm and bulimic Heather Duke. When Veronica Sawyer accidentally impresses the Heathers with her talent for forging handwriting she’s unexpectedly invited to become one of them. Suddenly Veronica’s life is full of new possibilities.
One of these possibilities comes in the form of a handsome new transfer student. Dressed all in black, Jason J.D. Dean is confident, darkly mysterious and attracted to Veronica. However, he can’t abide the callous way Heather Chandler treats the object of his desire. Following some inappropriate advances by Ram and Kurt, two obnoxious football players, encouraged to hit on Veronica by Heather Chandler, J.D. convinces his sweetheart that revenge would be appropriate. Soon Veronica’s world becomes a master plan of murders staged to look like suicides. Then, unexpectedly, J.D. and Veronica’s revenge upon these high school scumbags takes a wrong turn when everyone begins celebrating these supposed victims of self-inflicted deaths as tragic heroes.
Based upon the 1988 film, this black comedy that satirizes high school cliques, peer pressure and teen celebrity was adapted into a theatrical musical 26 years later by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy. Following a concert version at Joe’s Pub in NYC, and a sold-out run in Los Angeles, the musical opened Off-Broadway in New York City. Now enjoying its Chicago premiere, Kokandy Productions casts the spotlight to this dark story.
Directed and choreographed by James Beaudry and Sawyer Smith, two of Chicago’s finest creative artists, with expert musical direction by Kory Danielson, the large cast dazzles with skilled, stylistic acting, terrific vocals and dazzling dancing dexterity. Staged upon Ashley Ann Woods’ impressive set, Beaudry’s production makes great use of her two-level scenic design. Robert Kuhn’s bright, primary-colored 80’s costumes are pitch perfect and eye-catching and help delineate each stereotypical character, particularly the three Heathers.
Besides James Beaudry’s stylized staging and guidance, and Sawyer Smith’s finely-synchronized, athletic choreography, the best reason to see this show is the breakout performance by Courtney Mack as Veronica. This lovely, talented actress, making her Kokandy debut, deservedly owns this production. A real triple threat, Ms. Mack has a strong future ahead of her, if this performance is any indication.
Outstanding, impressive performances are also turned in by Jacquelyne Jones as Heather Chandler, Veronica Garza as an hilarious, overzealous teacher, Ms. Fleming and Teressa LaGamba as the much-ridiculed student, Martha Dunstock (cruelly nicknamed “Martha Dumptruck”). Chris Ballou makes a sexy, charismatic J.D. and Haley Jane Schafer gets to strut her stuff and grow into a leader as Heather Duke, the heir to Heathers crown.
This isn’t a musical for every taste. It’s not a Rodgers & Hammerstein kind of theatrical valentine. There’s no happily-ever-after in the final scene. With the exception of Veronica and Martha, there are few sympathetic characters in this story. It’s difficult to love a musical when it features so many hateful, repugnant people. It’s a dark and disturbing show that makes audiences cringe with every plot twist, yet other musicals, like “Sweeney Todd,” could be described in the same way. There’s broad satire and moral lessons to be learned, but the real appeal of this musical will be found primarily among younger theatergoers and aficionados of the cult film.
While the musical may not speak to everyone, there’s much to admire and recommend in this production. There are stellar performances, dazzling choreography and terrific singing. The acting is appropriately broad and stylish, taking the darkness of the film one step further. The musical numbers \extend the dialogue, define the characters and help drive home the themes of bullying and intolerance. And, under James Beaudry’s skillful direction, this is a show that, like Veronica, blossoms into a musical that may “Freeze Your Brain.” However, with Veronica as the “New Sheriff in Town” this play do much to “Shine a Light” on many of the problems in today’s world.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 4-April 24 by Kokandy Productions at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.kokandyproductions.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com