Heathers, under the direction of performer/drag artist/director Trevor Ashley, premiered at the Hayes Theatre in 2015 and has since toured the country to the rightful adoration of Australian musical theatre fans. This dark show is wonderfully loud and energetic with a stellar cast and a great sense of style.
Based on the cult-classic 80s movie of the same name, Heathers follows Veronica Sawyer (Hilary Cole), your average high school nobody who falls in with the popular crowd, ‘The Heathers’, led by Heather Chandler (Lucy Maunder). Things go awry when she meets brooding JD (Stephen Madsen); before she knows it, her teen angst bullshit has a body count.
This is teen issues exaggerated and oversized: there’s plenty of humour, shoulder pads and vivacious energy to embellish the popularity wars. The intimacy of the Hayes theatre space added a raw and emotional edge to the production, which seems lost in the joy and exuberance of Ashley’s explosive Opera House staging – like emotions were traded for punchlines.
This production doesn’t ignore the murders or attempted suicides that make the show the black comedy it is, but it’s difficult to feel how pertinent these issues are for teenagers today – it’s lacking the compassion for its characters that comes through in songs (by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe) like ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Freeze Your Brain’. At the Hayes these issues played out with a little more raw volatility and a pain under the surface of all the jokes that was much more palpable, yet at the Opera House it has been hidden away under knee-slapping showstoppers.
The show is anchored by strong performances across the board. Hilary Cole’s Veronica Sawyer is the heart of this production and in Cole’s hands she’s a nuanced portrait of a teenager seeking acceptance; she balances comedy with wistfulness for simpler times, particularly into the second act. Cole’s voice is clear and textured, and moves with ease between softer, more reserved moments and those that call for her powerful and captivating belt.
Her psychotic boyfriend JD is an aloof Stephen Madsen; he harbours a disturbing intensity that rises to the surface in the second act. Lauren McKenna is a clear audience favourite and successfully balances two starkly different but important roles: the kind-hearted and naïve Martha, Veronica’s best friend, and the hilariously eccentric Ms Fleming, who tries to counsel the students through their suicide epidemic. Her Ms Fleming solo ‘Shine a Light’ is pitch perfect comedy; her Martha solo ‘Kindergarten Boyfriend’ is deeply moving, hurting yet hopeful.
Maunder is equal parts apathetic and vindictive as the ruler of the school and, despite her cool, still has clear hints of a teenager just looking for validation. Heather Duke (Hannah Fredericksen) is the neurotic second to Chandler and steals scenes with her sass and skilful transition from sidekick to ringleader in the second act. Heather McNamara (Rebecca Hetherington) is unassuming and compliant at first but in the second act, after Chandler’s death and the wider social stratum challenged, her vulnerability surfaces; her solo ‘Lifeboat’, about this very confusion and loneliness, is touching.
Under Bev Kennedy’s tight musical direction the band is dynamic, pulsating softly at times and roaring with energy at others, but the sound design does the music a disservice by over amplifying the sound and occasionally causing the band to overpower the vocals, which is particularly noticeable in some of the quieter moments like McKenna’s ‘Kindergarten Boyfriend’.
Aesthetically, this show is as extravagant as it sounds. Angela White’s loud costumes with Emma Vine and Eamon D’arcy’s detailed set effectively transport us to an 80s high school with beaten up lockers and walls sprawled with graffiti, complimented by Gavan Swift’s psychedelic lighting. Cameron Mitchell’s choreography is joyous, and is particularly effective in the triumphant group numbers.
There is something missing at the heart of this show; maybe it doesn’t take bullying and loneliness as seriously as it could, even for a comedy. Despite that, it has great style, an impressive cast and it exudes an infectious energy that will have you smiling as you leave the theatre.