BWW Review: HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL at Wayne State Thrills With Killer Performances and Charming Ridiculousness
Through October 27th, Wayne State will be showcasing their sold-out production of Heathers: The Musical at the 110-seat theatre, Underground at the Hilberry. After an Off-Broadway run in 2014 and a West End production just last year, Heathers: The Musical has begun its journey to become a cult classic akin to its source material. Based on the 1988 movie which starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, Heathers: The Musical has music, lyrics, and a book by Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy.
In short, Heathers: The Musical is about Westerburg High, located in a small Ohio town. There's a group of popular girls called the "Heathers," and then there's Veronica Sawyer, who wants to be associated with the Heathers so she won't get picked on as much. She quickly befriends the Heathers and becomes entangled with the reclusive, dangerous J.D. Much more happens (an understatement), but it would be difficult to describe without spoiling anything. Essentially, this show discusses many difficult topics including, but not limited to, bullying, homophobia, murder, and teen suicide.
"I think there's actually something to be said for the fact that this is a cast full of college students who have been working together for, most of us, three to four years now," said Lauren Alo, one of the two Veronica Sawyers. "And the connections that we have with each other is kind of crucial for a show that goes so in depth in so many difficult topics to talk about, and you can't replace the connections that we've made with each other on stage and off for anything."
Before I get into what I thought about this show, it's highly significant to mention just how successful this production has been, despite the fact that it only just opened. Heathers quickly became the fastest Wayne State production to completely sell out. You read that right: Every single ticket of their entire run has been sold. In the event that you don't have a ticket for this killer (literally) production, you can be placed on a cancellation list prior to each performance. More information can be found here.
Coming into Heathers at Wayne State, I had very high expectations. Not only have I been obsessively listening to the London cast album as of late, but I've also heard incredible things about the theatre program at Wayne. Needless to say, this production did not disappoint. I absolutely adored it, and if it wasn't sold out I would go see it again without hesitation.
Faith Berry, as one of the two Veronica Sawyers, is an absolute rockstar. Her vocal talent is apparent throughout the performance, but you mostly get to see her shine in the iconic number, "Dead Girl Walking."
"I think Veronica has the most roller coaster of an adventure in terms of the characters I've gotten to play, and I think her journey is so completely different from anything I would go through," Berry explained. "It's really cool to step into her shoes and to see, you know, just how she handles everything and how she learns from experience and how she ends her story in this moment specifically."
It was also really neat to see a Black Veronica, something I've never seen done before. Her casting brings a whole new angle to the show that I found absolutely fascinating, and completely necessary. Furthermore, Veronica seems like an incredibly difficult role to tackle, but nevertheless, Berry nails the role. (And I'm sure Alo does too, though I didn't get to see her Veronica.)
The other lead of the show, Luke Hodgson, embodied exactly what you would picture when you think about the character of J.D. He plays J.D.'s descent into madness perfectly, combining an undeniable wit with untamed ferocity. Specifically, his rendition of "Meant To Be Yours" was terrifying, provoking chills in the audience.
Another standout was Steph Bedore as Martha. Though she is bullied incessantly throughout the show, Bedore's Martha is the sweetest, kindest soul in the entire cast of characters. Her wistful rendition of "Kindergarten Boyfriend" in the second act will crush your heart in the best way.
And then there are the Heathers: Heather McNamara, played by Vanessa Fry; Heather Duke, played by Oliva Paryaski; and Heather Chandler, played by Cara Forfinski.
Fry's depiction of McNamara's journey from being one of the bullies into a kind-hearted friend to Veronica is quite an inspirational one; something we all can learn a lesson from.
Paryaski is a freshman at Wayne, but judging by the way she takes command of the stage during her big scenes in the second act, you wouldn't even know it.
The last actor I'd like to talk about is Forfinski. Her Heather Chandler is everything you'd expect: cruel, obnoxious, and in Veronica's words: "A mythic bitch." Though her character is (obviously) a horrible person, you find yourself wanting to see even more of her. That's partially due to the script, but it's mostly due to Forfinski's undeniable stage presence. You can especially look forward to "Candy Store," a song that Forfinski crushes alongside Fry and Paryaski.
Overall, Heathers was top-notch in every way. Firstly, Caleb Matthews' costumes looked nearly identical to the costumes I've seen in pictures of the aforementioned professional productions. Secondly, thanks to Jill Dion's expert direction, the cast made incredible use of the tight-knit space they had to work with.
"I think the intimacy of the space is something that's really special, you normally don't get to see a full-blown musical like this in a theatre that seats about 150 people," Hodgson said. "I think there's a lot of heart to this musical that really shines with that shared experience with the audience rather than projecting out to a big house."
"Getting to feel the energy super close is I think what makes it super awesome for both ends," Bedore added.
In the event that you already have tickets to Heathers, count yourself lucky: You're in for a real treat. It was one of the theatre highlights of my year by far.
If you'd like to read the entirety of my interview with the cast, it's included below.
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BWW Detroit: What is your name, the role you play, and your year at Wayne State?
Steph Bedore: Hi, my name is Steph Bedore. I'm a third year BFA and I'm playing Martha.
Faith Berry: Hi, I'm Faith Berry. I'm also a third year BFA and I'm playing Veronica.
Lauren Alo: Hi, I'm Lauren. I'm a senior and I am playing Veronica.
Luke Hodgson: Hi, I'm Luke Hodgson. I'm a senior at Wayne State right now, double majoring in theatre and global studies.
What makes this production of Heathers unique?
Hodgson: I think the intimacy of the space is something that's really special, you normally don't get to see a full-blown musical like this in a theatre that seats about 150 people, and I think there's a lot of heart to this musical that really shines with that shared experience with the audience rather than projecting out to a big house.
Alo: I think there's actually something to be said for the fact that this is a cast full of college students who have been working together for, most of us, three to four years now. And the connections that we have with each other is kind of crucial for a show that goes so in depth in so many difficult topics to talk about, and you can't replace the connections that we've made with each other on stage and off for anything.
Bedore: The intimacy, as Luke said, is really really important because seeing the facial expressions that close up, because this is such a show where everyone's so connected, and getting to feel the energy super close, is what I think makes it super awesome for both ends.
Hodgson: Going back to what Lauren was saying, with a lot of us that have been able to work together for a long time within the department, there's also a lot of freshmen in this cast that really stepped up and I think did really phenomenal work, and they should be really proud. It's hard jumping into a musical right out of high school at a college level. We cast the show about a week into classes, so there were a lot of people who really had no experience with a university, and they've all just done phenomenal work in getting this show ready in the short amount of time that we've had.
What do you like most about playing your character?
Berry: I think Veronica has the most roller coaster of an adventure in terms of the characters I've gotten to play, and I think her journey is so completely different from anything I would go through. It's really cool to step into her shoes and to see, you know, just how she handles everything and how she learns from experience and how she ends her story in this moment specifically.
Alo: Personally, as the other Veronica, this character is very near and dear to my heart. I relate to her in a lot of ways, and getting the opportunity to share that experience in the most truthful way that I know how is freakin' incredible, it's so cool.
Berry: It's also fun watching her Veronica.
Are they different?
Alo: Oh yeah, two different Veronica's.
How are they different?
Berry: I think my Veronica is a little bit more snarky than yours.
Alo: A little?
Berry: A lot more snarky.
Alo: I think I play the dork factor of Veronica up a lot more. I'm kind of good at being a dork.
Berry: Come on, dork.
Alo: Thank you!
Alo: But I mean, there's also the fact that if you see these characters on stage, clearly. like, she did not pop out of her mom.
Alo: When we were talking about the characters and the backstories, she was adopted.
Berry: And that makes our show different, one of the Veronica's is Black.
What would you say is the main takeaway of this show?
Hodgson: Life is hard, but it's the connections that you're able to make with those around you to really bind together and enjoy what good there is in the world, that I think is really special about this production. You just get washed in this hard world that's harsh, but in the end you have a moment of unity and togetherness and true human collaboration in making the world a better place. So I think, just in terms of that journey from hopelessness to hope, I think it's something that will really resonate with audiences.
Bedore: After getting to see so many dark things, there's so many people who just have the worst times of their entire lives. Like, this is a wild show, and the ending just leaves it open to be like, yeah all this stuff happened, but we can keep on going, we can take a minute and relax. Everything doesn't have to be crazy, everything doesn't have to be hectic all the time, it can be relaxed with the people you love and care about.