BWW Reviews: 'What's Your Damage?' HEATHERS Will Blow You Away
Since I moved to Austin in 2009, I haven't been quite this blown-away with the realization of the astounding talent we have right here in our very own city. Doctuh Mistuh's production of HEATHERS the Musical features a veritable who's who of young local talent, some truly memorable music, a fantastic band, and of course, all of those one-liners and scenes that HEATHERS film fans are expecting.
Based on the 1988 film, which starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, this cult-classic black comedy portrays four teenage girls - three of whom are namEd Heather - in a vicious clique at Westerburg, a fictional high school in Ohio. Though they are the most popular students, the Heathers are both feared and hated. They invite 17-year-old Veronica Sawyer to join their group, by association making her a very popular girl as well. (Yes, these were the original "Mean Girls", but with a bit of a dark, violent streak added into the mix.) Here's where the story takes a turn. At school, Veronica becomes involved with a rebellious outsider named Jason "JD" Dean, who ends up having a chilling talent for homicide, born of the strong hatred for his high school sub-culture. For those of you who aren't as familiar with the story (and its magnificent one-liners), I'll leave the rest to your imagination. In 2010, HEATHERS was adapted into the stage musical directed by Andy Fickman (also known for the musical Reefer Madness), and the 2014 Off-Broadway production garnered two Drama Desk Award nominations and two Lucille Lortel Award nominations.
Serving as both Director and Music Director, Michael McKelvey once again proves that he has his finger on the pulse of new and exciting music theatre. But in this particular production, McKelvey has assembled the best up-and-coming local talent, and after seeing a production of the original Off-Broadway cast, I can honestly say that I preferred this cast both vocally and dramatically.
Though much of the staging and choreography is strongly reminiscent of the original Off-Broadway show, McKelvey and Madison Piner add some distinct improvements to this production, and it fits perfectly into a theatre of Salvage Vanguard's size, which I think might have been one of the reasons why the original production didn't fare as well as expected. I also feel that McKelvey's band had a more polished and professional sound, and all of the elements gelled together very well. Completing the perfect picture, Glenda Barnes does such beautiful work with costumes, not only transporting us back in time (whether we want to go there or not), but the vibrant colors breathe a hint of fantasy into the nostalgia.
Playing the role of our dark and "damaged" heroine, Veronica Sawyer, Aline Mayagoitia, completely blew me away in all regards. This young lady is a recent graduate of the theatre program at McCallum High School, and is now pursuing a degree in Music Theatre within the prestigious program at The University of Michigan. Not only does Ms. Mayagoitia have an alarmingly similar voice to the original Veronica, Winona Ryder, but she is also an absolutely beautiful, soulful actor, and she has a gorgeous, unusual presence and charisma that one doesn't see every day. Every moment of her line delivery is organic and every facet of character is completely polished. But don't let me stop there. From the moment she begins her first song, you will realize just what a powerful talent you are witnessing. I far prefer her performance to the original Off-Broadway Veronica because she delivers a more nuanced performance in all regards. Vocally, she has a gorgeous range, and she knows exactly how to blow an audience away when she needs to. Keep your eyes on this one, folks. She's a superstar.
Playing the role of JD, Gray Randolph delivers some amazing moments, but at other times his rendition of this character was a bit over-wrought. I could never get tired of watching him sing "Our Love is God" or "Seventeen", but his voice wasn't as powerful as his partner's. In many moments in the story, I had wished that he not only exhibited more vocal power (such as in "Freeze Your Brain"), but also displayed some honesty and depth in his acting so that he might evolve the classic, iconic character of JD with more of a vengeance. Mr. Randolph has an incredible, dark look, no doubt...but in build, he is also just a bit smaller in frame than one would expect of any performer chosen to play JD, and perhaps he tried to compensate for this by delivering a sort of overdone caricature of the "bad-ass rebel". Don't get me wrong; I know that we are talking about HEATHERS here, not Shakespeare. But as lovely as some of his moments were, I was left wanting...more. Similarly, playing the role of Martha Dunnstock (a.k.a. Martha "Dumptruck"), Krystal Newcomer was painfully beautiful and honest to watch as an actor, but like Mr. Randolph, I wanted more vocal power in her song, "Kindergarten Boyfriend", which is an incredible moment that could potentially bring down the house.
The trio of Heathers is a group of cleverly cast, well-matched "power belters", who have each sculpted-out their very own, individual character choices. ("Candy Store" will slay you.) In the role of the Queen Heather, Heather Chandler, Taylor Bryant fit this role like a glove, and she couldn't have been more perfectly cast. With incredible beauty and acting chops to boot, her performance was astounding, and she was truly stronger than her Off-Broadway predecessor. In fact, after seeing her portrayal, I couldn't possibly imagine anyone else doing the role. Part of Ms. Bryant's charisma is the fact that she is vocally sublime, and it matches her character intensity as she plays Heather Chandler as the perfect "Mythic Bi***." In the roles of Heather McNamara and Heather Duke, Kassiani Menas and Celeste Castillo are excellent. Because of Ms. Menas' performance of "Lifeboat", I have fallen completely in love with both the song and her rendition. And Ms. Castillo never ceases to amaze with her incredible ability to shape-shift into a myriad of vastly differing roles with unreal vocal range and control.
Now let's get to the gentlemen that practically stole the show. Playing the roles of Kurt and Ram, Jeff Jordan and Ricky Gee might as well have been straight out of the movie. These incredible actors delivered precision-point comedic timing in every breath, every facial expression, every scene. These two will make you want to return to see the show a second time. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the performance of Matt Connely in his role as JD's terrifyingly creepy dad, Big Bud Dean. I must say that his Christian Slater/Jack Nicholsen impression in that role is the best I will ever see. The scenes with JD were intensely chilling yet hilarious at the same time.
Under the direction of McKelvey, the band was truly "off the hook." It became quite obvious to me upon comparing both productions that the music director of this show must be very careful with their choices of instrumentation, instrumental levels, and timing, purely based off of the fact that the late-80's-flavored style of music is an integral part of the story and its momentum. In my opinion, McKelvey and his band hit the mark stylistically, and the high energy levels favored the pacing. Even before the show begins, we are treated to music carefully chosen from that time period. And I'm not sure how many audience members really noticed this, but even the funeral scene was introduced with the sound of an organ slowly playing "Like a Virgin." I am amazed at how unusually complex and thick the score is for a contemporary work, both vocally and in composition. Luckily, under the Vocal Direction of Adam Roberts, this cast was completely prepared and polished, and ensemble scenes were powerful and mind-blowing. As a fan of the original movie, I had a hard time visualizing how it could possibly translate into a musical, and I wasn't sure what to expect. In actuality, the musical cleverly highlights moments we already loved from the film, and in many ways, makes those moments even better. Take my advice, and sit in the front row so that you may experience the slow-motion fight scene within the number "Fight For Me", complete with the ensemble singing their "Holy Sh**" chorus. This is now one of my new favorite moments in all of music theatre history.
I freely admit that I am your basic textbook example of a Gen X-er, so I might be a tad bit biased when it comes to HEATHERS, and all of its one-liner glory. Whether you're already a hardcore fan of the film or a newbie to the twisted world of HEATHERS and Westerburg High School, rush down to the Salvage Vanguard Theatre and catch the Red Scrunchie before it disappears. After recently selling out due to high ticket demand, Doctuh Mistuh Productions has added additional performances. Don't let this one get away, or it's your "damage."
Doctuh Mistuh's production of HEATHERS will be playing now through July 11th at The Salvage Vanguard Theatre, 2803 E Manor Rd, Austin, TX 78722. Performances are Thursday, June 18th - Saturday, July 11th, with Thurs-Sat evening performances beginning at 7:30pm, and Sunday performances beginning at 5pm. Tickets start at $15. For tickets and information, please visit www.DoctuhMistuh.org or call 512-296-3494.