BWW Review: Gen Y's Florida Premiere of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL is 'So Very' and So Much More
There is something killer going on in Orlando's theatre scene, and I mean that in the best possible way. Since debuting with a production of CABARET in January, Gen Y Productions has staged thrilling Florida premieres of two of New York's most buzzed-about new works, a risky proposition for a theatre company looking to build an audience. In June, it was a mesmerizing production of Pulitzer Prize-winner THE FLICK (read BWW's review), and now it is the devilishly entertaining HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL. The show runs through August 23rd at The Dr. Phillips Center's Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater, and after attending last week's Opening Night, I think it is safe to say that Gen Y is quickly becoming my favorite theatre company in Central Florida.
HEATHERS is fun, it's irreverent, and it has a bit of a social conscience; to borrow a phrase that I'm not completely sure I understand, in short, it is "so very." Based on the 1989 film of the same name, which starred a young Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, HEATHERS follows Veronica Sawyer (the fantastic Nicole Visco) through her senior year of high school. Having been a bullied outcast for years, Veronica abandons her best friend Martha (beautifully portrayed by Ally Gursky) to join the school's most powerful clique, the Heathers, played by the collectively and individually wonderful Lindsey Wells, Caroline Drage, and Jillian Gizzi. The Heathers, and by association Veronica, continue their mean girl reign of terror until mysterious new guy J.D. (Vine video-star Thomas Sanders) takes a stand. Nearly as quickly as J.D. and Veronica start dating, J.D. begins murdering classmates in order to make the world a better place.
Now, if you think that sounds like odd subject matter for a musical, you would be right; but there is likely no one better to write this show than Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy. Both of their resumes are littered with beloved musicals drawn from unusual subject matter. O'Keefe co-wrote the supermarket tabloid-inspired BAT BOY THE MUSICAL (which Gen Y is producing in October) and the delightful, yet under-appreciated LEGALLY BLONDE: THE MUSICAL; while Murphy co-wrote the satiric drug-prevention musical REEFER MADNESS (which runs at Rollins next month). Like BAT BOY and LEGALLY BLONDE, HEATHERS focuses squarely on how it feels to be an outsider, and the measures one is willing to take to feel loved and accepted. The empathy the writers show their sensitively drawn characters should make up for any uncomfortableness you might feel about the story.
As was the case with THE FLICK, the strength in this production of HEATHERS is a remarkably talented cast and steady, specific direction from Kenny Howard. From leads to ensemble, this is the best musical cast that I have seen since I moved to Orlando.
Visco is a revelation as Veronica. A senior set to graduate from UCF's Acting program later this year, she perfectly blends the horror, heart, and humor that the role requires; which is not an easy task. One of the highlights of the show is her subtle, non-verbal reactions to the craziness swirling around her; so try not to blink. Visco also possesses a fantastic musical theatre voice, belting out some insanely tough notes; especially during the climax of "Dead Girl Walking."
As J.D., Sanders is a lot of fun, in a homicidal sort of way. Giving just enough Christian Slater for it to still be considered homage, he finds a way to make his teenage killer more understandable than the film version. Additionally, he has a really nice baritone voice, and adds in extra shots of humor whenever possible.
I found Wells' performance as the head Heather really intriguing. Despite putting a capital "B" in "witch," she was able to make Heather Chandler surprisingly relatable, especially after she sees the light. Heather Duke probably has the most growth of the three, going from having "no discernible personality" to being the ultimate mean girl. Drage does a good job communicating that evolution, but I would have loved to have seen a bit more of each extreme from her.
As head cheerleader Heather, Gizzi nearly steals the entire show. Since Heather McNamara is the dimmest girl in the group, Gizzi has free reign to be as goofy as she can be, putting her elastic face and pitch-perfect comic timing to good use. No matter what was happening on stage, I found it really difficult to take my eyes off of her. The best dancer of the three, she brought energy and sharpness to Orlando legend Blue Star's minimal choreography that few other cast members could, and all three Heathers give great vocals.
(Keep an eye out for video of my interviews with Visco, Sanders, and the Heathers later this week.)
The ensemble is also full of entertaining characters. Gursky gives a wonderfully heart-breaking performance, especially in Act II's "Kindergarten Boyfriend." David Kotary and Kyle Wait are a lot of fun as jocks Ram and Kurt, and Alexander Mrazek is hilarious, especially in his top of Act II number.
A few anachronisms notwithstanding, the score is far catchier than a show about high school murders should be. Having heard the songs in the context of the show and listened to the cast recording multiple times since, the cassette player in my head has been bouncing back and forth between four or five HEATHERS songs for days.
While the cast totally killed it, the show's production values do take a step down from there. While you can't expec t this local production to have the polish of the touring shows that play in the bigger Walt Disney Theater next door, some of the oversights are disappointing; especially since the cast and direction are so on point. As mentioned previously, Blue Star's choreography was minimal at best, and didn't seem to take full advantage of the cast's talents. That being typed, there are some cool movement moments, especially a slow-mo fight scene in the first act.
The set by Tom Mangeri is admittedly more dynamic than that of the original Off-Broadway production, but it lacked the professional finishes that most of the performers displayed. Also, the show likely would have benefited significantly from a few simple theatrical effects during key moments; especially when bodily fluids were involved.
Another reason to feel good about loving this production, after each performance, despite the campy craziness of the show, the HEATHERS cast collects money for Upstanders, an organization dedicated to stomping out bullying in local schools.
So, what's your damage? Grab your trench coat, your croquet mallets, and a bag of Corn Nuts and get your tickets HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL by visiting the Dr. Phillips website. Again, Gen Y has gone out on a limb in producing a show that likely isn't familiar to the traditional Central Florida theatre-going crowd. That kind of adventurous programing, especially when executed at this level, deserves to be supported.
Did you take a trip to Sherwood, Ohio circa 1989? Let me know what you thought of Gen Y's HEATHERS in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter. You can also chat with me about the show on Twitter @BWWMatt.
1) Caroline Drage, Lindsey Wells, and Jillian Gizzi: Gen Y Productions
2) Nicole Visco: Gen Y Productions
3) Nicole Visco and Thomas Sanders: Gen Y Productions
4) Ally Gursky and Nicole Visco: Gen Y Productions