BWW Review: Mad Theatre of Tampa's Edgy, Darkly Funny HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL at the Shimberg
"Our children are dying. I suggest we get everyone into the cafeteria and just talk. And feel. Together." --from the song, "The Me Inside of Me"
"Adults are powerless. That's their big secret." --a line from HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL
That Mad Theatre of Tampa's production of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL opened on the one-year anniversary of the Parkland shootings was not lost on me. Earlier in the day, at the school where I teach, we had a minute of silence at 10:17 a.m. (All Florida public schools also held some sort of touching tribute in honor of the young who were horrifically gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.) Extra security was on campus, and I couldn't help but remember the images of horror from a year ago and the brave young survivors who turned tragedy into activism.
After such a day of sad remembrance, I headed toward the Straz Center where HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL opened at the Shimberg. In the show, based on the teen cult film from the 1980's, a young psychopath tries to help the girl he loves by offing the popular kids in their school, including the queens of Westerburg High, all named Heather. This budding psycho even tries to blow up the school gym, and the image of him shooting a classmate--with a row of lockers behind him--could not be more disquieting in the present environment.
But I found myself torn as I watched the talented Mad performers bringing this darkly funny musical to life. Does it work in our post-Parkland purgatory? Other than capturing the pecking order of high school in the most venomous of ways, and other than containing some killer musical theatre songs and incredible dance numbers, does it serve a real purpose? Does it add something that the original movie does not? And even though it takes place in 1989, a full ten years before Columbine, does it add to the dialogue about school violence, or not; and if not, then why are we watching?
I think that Mad Theatre also asked many of these questions. The Parkland anniversary obviously was not lost on them since they are donating $500 to Kids on the Block, a program with Champions for Children to support anti-bullying and anti-school violence programs.
But the questions still remain. And I fear the change in our culture taints the way we view this show. Because the musical hasn't changed, but the times have; we now live in a world where it may be tough to joke or make light of some of the scenarios presented here (suicide, violence, bullying); just ask Louis CK. But this outlook ruins what works best in HEATHERS--its downright ballsiness. Looking at this from the perspective of our modern reality adds a heavy layer to the Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy musical that is not meant to be there. This is a cult show if ever there was one, an 80's ode to the young and misunderstood where the humor is the blackest you'll find anywhere this side of Dr. Strangelove. It's like dancing in a teenage abyss, surviving an adolescent apocalypse.
And it's a must-see in our area because this production has been SOLD OUT for its entire 13-show run. It's easier to get a ticket from the Hamilton lottery than it is to see Mad Theatre's HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL. So, if you already bought your ticket, consider yourself very fortunate. (Just make sure to arrive to the Straz early; with all of the shows going on this month, parking can be, to put it lightly, a bitch.)
You can say this about HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL...it's not a reboot of Brigadoon. Set on September 1, 1989, the show is like a more-successful, less-deranged Carrie: The Musical. (Even with different songwriters, "In" from Carrie could easily have been transported into HEATHERS.) Watching the show for the first time, I was surprised by how many top-notched musical theatre hits peppered the score, classics that are performed in Thespian festivals across the country: "Candy Store," "Freeze Your Brain," "Dead Girl Walking," "Seventeen," and "Lifeboat" (the latter sounding like Alanis Morissette Lite). Who knew HEATHERS nearly rivals West Side Story with its number of classic songs, beloved by teenagers and aficionados who like their musicals extra dark?
The Mad Theatre production of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL contains many outstanding performances, so I'll start at the top. Leading this pack is Imani Serrano as the eye-rolling, entitled Heather Chandler. Ms. Serrano has the charisma and that "X" factor that draws your eyes to her even when other things are going on. When she's onstage--dancing, singing, acting, all in exquisitely salty character--you realize that she has the star quality that the part requires. In the memorable "Candy Store," she slinks, struts, sneers her mouth into a wicked smile, the rich girl winner who will get her just or unjust desserts. In a show loaded with talent, Ms. Serrano is the one that we remember most. And when fate (or a psychopath) snuffs the character out, we fear we will not see this talented performer for the rest of the show; thank God the writers are wicked enough to bring back the privileged princess as a poltergeist.
The Heathers in the show come across as fashionable Schuyler Sisters of an era of hair bands and scrunchies. For the record, the other two Heathers in the mix (Britny Cuilty and Paige Lewandrowski) are also good with some nice moments, but Serrano is undeniably the standout.
As Veronica Sawyer, the central character, Alivia Quattrocki brings out her inner-Wynona Ryder and seizes the role. She starts off rather shaky, possibly by design, and it takes a second or two to warm to her. But then as the show continues, we're glad she's our leader in this teenage whiteboard jungle. She brings out her character's pain and the need to fit in, and she's our flawed guide through the sordidness of high school hierarchy. Her "Dead Girl Walking" and "Seventeen," sung with her psycho boyfriend, are beautifully rendered.
As JD, Aaron Castle once again shows us why he can unapologetically crawl into the dark side of life and give such an absorbing performance. I remember him as the Emcee in Cabaret three years ago, staining his eyes black in the number "I Don't Care Much," and it was a beautifully haunting moment. It's like his entire performance here is two hours of that eye-blackening instance. It's terrifically scary stuff. There's a darkness there that he can muster, the troubled but very smart kid who loves his girlfriend so much that he will kill for her (and with his psychosis, he'd probably kill for her even if he didn't love her). With his chiseled cheek bones and lithe body, Castle comes across as the weird synthesis of James Dean , Eric Harris and a young Peter Cushing. He's chilling in the Act 1 closer, "Our Love Is God," and "Freeze Your Brain," JD's ode to the wonders of a Slurpee, his personal drug, is brilliant.
Thankfully another major talent in the cast, Karli Gundersen, is there to save the day (or the show). She's delightful as the meek Martha Dunnstock, and with her wondrous singing voice, she singlehandedly turns her big solo, the normally only-passable "Kindergarten Boyfriend," into one of the show's highlights. Then again, Ms. Gundersen could sing an optometrist's eye chart and make it sound stunning.
Christian Rodriguez and Sean McKinley are funny and quite brave as the bullying jocks, Ram and Kurt, who show off their superhero underwear and turn obnoxiousness into an art form. We feel bad laughing at their stupidity and bullying antics, and later feel bad that we're not so sad at their violent passing and postmortem outing. As their fathers, Jay Morgan and Jarrett Koski are aggressive, fist-pumping go-get-ems. I didn't always buy into Koski's macho, Southern-drawling dad, but his moment of giddy revelation and arm-flailing freedom in the hilarious gospel-fueled "My Dead Gay Son" was sheer heaven.
Taylor Brown as Ms. Fleming looks just like Emma Thompson's Professor Trelawney in the Harry Potter films. She's quite good in her big number, "Shine a Light". The rest of the cast does remarkably well, including Richard Brown, Corryn Kennedy, Julia Mason, Emily Schurr and Richard Cubi.
Unfortunately, some tech issues got in the way on the night I saw it. Due to mic problems, I couldn't always hear the singers, especially some of the ensemble and one of the Heathers. The band, conducted by Sarah Tellier, was way, WAY too loud in the intimate Shimberg, and they sometimes drowned out the cast.
Singing was mostly fine. Sometimes there were pitch issues, but overall the vocals worked well. But Kelly King's clever choreography made up for any singing issues. The dancing here was much tighter than the last Mad Theatre production, 9 to 5. A slow motion fight scene in "Fight for Me" was so beautifully achieved, excellent all the way around, that the audience had to give it sustained applause; it's one of the best fight scenes of this kind I've ever experienced. Lunch menus are used in a sort of fan dance in "Beautiful." Gorgeous tableaus abound. The cast is energetic in each dance, full of life, where even the dead get to join in the warped celebration.
I tip my proverbial hat to director Justin Batten for leading this very difficult show so effectively. The pacing was good, the staging excellent, and the experience memorable. (The audience on opening night cheered the show on like we were at a Westerburg High School football game.) Although I'm not a fan of the overall musical, I appreciate that this was being produced locally and that Tampa Bay audiences have been so receptive to it.
HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL has a lot to offer, but maybe the most important one is the discussion it will cause and the questions it will raise. For instance, how do we deal with shows like this in our current world of school shootings, bully culture, and ATP drills? It's an important question to ask; I just wish I had the answer.
Photo credit: Chaz D Photography.