Review: Heathers: The Musical (Hart House Theatre)

Hart House Theatre presents a new production of Heathers: The Musical in Toronto

Heathers: The Musical, currently showing at Hart House Theatre, is based on the cult classic ’80s film of the same name; a dark comedy where the struggle for popularity—and, for some, just plain acceptance—leads to hate and violence. It is teen angst with a death count. For the most part, the musical follows the same plot and characters and has a similar campy appeal. 

Veronica is a member of the most elite high school group: the Heathers, which is comprised of herself and three girls named Heather. Veronica doesn’t much like her cohorts (“they’re people I work with, and our job is being popular”) and doesn’t share their sadistic enthusiasm for the taunting of the less popular students. 

When her best friend, an unpopular girl named Martha, becomes the butt of one of their jokes, Veronica decides to part with the Heathers. She gets involved with a new kid in school, the mysterious J.D. With his trench-coat and books of poetry, he manages to keep his cool and separate himself from the high school caste system by being witty and tough. They form an alliance that results in the deaths of several of their peers, but their romance eventually sours as Veronica realizes that vengeance isn’t the answer to an oppressive cycle of cruelty. 

Except for a clever lyric here and a snippet of catchy melody there, I didn’t much care for the content of the musical itself. Some poignant moments from the film that work so well because they are brief yet striking, are drawn out here into full song and dance numbers that dampen the satire with spectacle and sentiment. Now, I love spectacle (especially in musical theatre), but I couldn’t help but compare the musical to its source material which was, by far, less mawkish and more scathing. 

Had I not seen the film, I may have been less resistant to the charms of this show. The production is certainly stunning. As a directorial debut, it is especially impressive. Jennifer Walls’ dynamic staging is colourful, fluid and purposeful. The design elements are a masterful use of colour theory! 

Brandon Kleiman’s set perfectly captures the MTV aesthetic—a dizzying spiral that sucks us into Westerburg High School. With Melissa Joakim’s lighting, it undergoes vibrant, chameleon-like transformations and almost seems to expand and contract.

Your eyes are drawn to a large screen backdrop that Joakim fills with ’80s-era television graphics that ground the events in a very specific time and work well with the costumes to effectively underline an important idea: the optics of popularity—how your look can determine how you will be treated.

The clever style extends to Amanda Nuttall’s choreography too, which is consistently eye-catching, each number ending with an arresting tableau silhouette.

While there are some great lines from the original film like “what’s your damage?” and “fuck me gently with a chainsaw,” a lot of the writing here is a little too saccharine for my taste, especially when the story gets caught up in the melodrama. The cast though is very sincere and sells the hell out of each moment.

The biggest surprise for me was just how thoroughly moved I was by Moulan Bourke’s rendition of “Kindergarden Boyfriend.” I was, at first, on guard against lyrics that seemed so cloying, but somehow it got me. 

These musicals are sneaky; the damn silly things can give you the feels without your permission and against your better judgement.

Heathers is a stylish and compelling show. If you’re a fan of the film, you may miss the elegant satire, but if you can put the original out of your mind and settle into the vastly different tone of this, it’s a lot of fun. 

Details:

  • Heathers: The Musical is playing at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) through to October 6, 2018
  • Shows run Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm with a 2pm matinee on the final Saturday.
  • Tickets are $15 for students, $17 for seniors and $28 for adults with $12 student tickets on Wednesday evenings.
  • Tickets are available online at harthouse.ca

Photo of Paige Foskett, Mary Bowden, Becka Jay, and Emma Sangalli by Scott Gorman.