Heathers: The Musical, directed by Jennifer Walls and presented at Hart House Theatre, primes audience expectations from the beginning when actress Mary Bowden, who plays queen bee Heather Chandler, aptly points out in the pre-show announcements that “This is not Heathers the movie. We can see you.” This statement is meant comedically, but it also serves as a warning to die hard fans of the 1988 dark comedy of the same name that if they came to see something comparable to the Michael Lehmann version, they risk disappointment. Heathers follows Veronica Sawyer, played by Emma Sangalli, a 17-year-old girl who joins a clique that includes three of the most popular girls in school, all of whom are named Heather. Veronica becomes dissatisfied with her role in the group when they try to make her mistreat her former best friend Martha Dunnstock, portrayed by Moulan Bourke. Veronica teams up with bad boy Jason Dean, or J.D. for short, who makes her an accomplice in his plan to take down the Heathers once and for all. His method? Murder.
There are no rules stating that a musical has to be faithful to its source material. However, Walls’ production of Heathers plays as campy melodrama instead of the sardonic and witty story that fans of the movie have come to associate with the name Heather. It becomes difficult to separate the musical from its source material since it is saturated with direct quotes from the film. Consistently, actors make choices that make the film quotes feel out of place. Sangalli plays Veronica as a moralizing bystander, so when she says things like “my teenage angst bullshit has a body count,” you’re left asking, what angst? Equally, Justin Myers plays J.D. as the nice guy, devoid of morbid cynicism, so when he starts setting up detailed murders, the audience is left blindsided and seeking his motive.
The Heathers, Heather Chandler (Bowden), Heather Duke (Paige Foskett), and Heather McNamara (Becka Jay), however, maintain a consistent story arc throughout. Most notably, Heather Chandler remains an unencumbered jerk from the first verse of Candy Store to the curtain call, and Boden makes no apologies for her character’s behavior. Her bold performance matches her strong vocals, while also offering a much-needed link to the sarcastic wit of the movie. Even after death, her ghost still offers snide side commentary, which enables the overly sentimental mass reaction to her death that carries the ironic effect the story calls for.
“I Love my Dead Gay Son” is played for laughs yet lacks the necessary irony that is present after Heather Chandler’s death. In the film, the line “I love my dead gay son” reframes two vapid, homophobic jocks as public martyrs against homophobia. The film makes a mockery of society’s penchant for falsely remembering the dead. In the musical, this scene becomes an unironic anthem for gay acceptance, complete with a giant pride flag. However, this noble sentiment is undercut using gay stereotypes via chorus members dressed as the Village People and the choice to make a kiss between two men the main punchline of the number. Though I don’t believe it was a result of any ill intent, these scenes could read as unintentional mockery.
This aside, the director makes active choices to draw on the media saturated backdrop of the 1980’s teen experience that has only become more pertinent as time goes by. As the audience enters the theatre, MTV music videos are projected on a multilayered set with tilted walls, which emphasises the vertigo of finding one’s identity in a world dominated by pop culture. The musical showcases the adverse effects of media consumption that goes unexplored in the film. In a media dominated age, Heathers are everywhere and are more widely seen and imitated. Jennifer Walls’ attention to technology in this piece bring new relevance to the themes introduced in the 80’s cult classic and reemphasizes the central conflict in the show: if you get rid of one Heather, how do you keep another from taking her place?
For those who haven’t seen the film or are looking for a lighthearted evening of poppy 80’s nostalgia, Heathers: The Musical is an entertaining show packed with vocal talent. This is not Heathers the movie, however, so to the uninitiated, I would suggest watching the film to understand the nuanced social critiques that Jennifer Walls’ version of the story might have left out.
Heathers: The Musical runs at Hart House Theatre until October 6.