At Westerburg High, friendship can be murder. Rockville Musical Theatre brings this dark musical comedy to life at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn as they present “Heathers, the Musical,” now through March 24th, 2019.
Long before “Mean Girls,” there was the Heathers. This musical is based on the well known, if macabre, 1989 film starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, and Shannen Doherty. This film subverted the typical “teen angst” film that was popular at the time, with instead of the underdog rising up triumphantly against the evil popular kids, the underdog resorts to murder. The musical follows the film relatively closely, with just a few adjustments to make it more palatable to the stage.
…I strongly recommend checking out RMT’s production before it’s, like, totally over.
Veronica (Bailey Wolf) shares her struggles with navigating the complex and cut-throat social scene at Westerburg through her diary entries, which act as a guiding force throughout the story. She wants to be a writer and longs to survive her senior year so that she can escape to the academic oasis of college. Her seemingly only friend is Martha Dunstock (Megan Evans), who is sweet and kind, but because she is overweight, is cruelly called Martha Dump-truck by most of her fellow classmates, including popular football players Ram (Chris O’Day) and Kurt (Joe Kappeler). Things begin to change for Veronica when she does a favor for the most popular girls in school, the Heathers: head cheerleader Heather McNamara (Katie Kellenberger), intense yearbook editor Heather Duke (Marcie Schwartz), and leader of them all, the ruthless Heather Chandler (Rachel Naugle.) Before she knows it, Veronica is the newest member of the school’s ruling elite.
However, things take a turn when Veronica meets the new kid, J.D. (Michael McCarthy); a sexy, Baudelaire-quoting dream in a black trench coat. He makes her question the changes in her life, and whether she is being authentic in her new role as a popular girl. After Veronica gets drunk and shuts down a plan to humiliate Martha at a party, she falls into disfavor with the Heathers and runs into J.D’s arms. He accompanies her to Heather Chandler’s house the next day to try and salvage her reputation, and an accident sparks Veronica onto a dark path, where more than one person will lose their life. Who will survive? Will anyone?
“Heathers the Musical” premiered first in L.A, where it had a sold-out run. It then moved to Off-Broadway where it ran from March-August 2014 and then spurred an Off-West End production. It also helped to launch the career of actress Barrett Wilbert Weed, who went from one set of mean girls to another, currently starring as Janice in “Mean Girls, the Musical” on Broadway.
“Heathers, the Musical” is an incredibly difficult show. Not only is the score immensely complex, but the journeys that these characters have to take is also intense. That’s why Rockville Musical Theatre’s production is so impressive; they are able to take on the challenge of this show with nuance and aplomb. Director Lee Michelle Rosenthal guides her cast through the complex world of dark comedy, hitting all the right notes.
This show lives and dies on the strength of its leading lady, Veronica Sawyer. This production is very ably anchored by Wolf, whose incredible belt and sparkling stage presence carry the show. She is able to hit all of the comedic notes, which makes the seriousness of the 2nd Act even more palpable by comparison. She is particularly dynamic during the numbers “Dead Girl Walking,” and during her desperate plea to J.D. to just be “Seventeen.” The Heathers are also standouts in their own ways. Naugle brought character actress Maribeth Monroe to mind with her savagely comedic performance. Schwartz is able to inspire both fear and pity as the intense wannabe queen bee, Heather Duke. These two have a great moment in the insanely catchy “Candy Store” number where Duke oversteps her bounds, just to have Chandler knock her back in her place. It’s a funny moment, but also is incredibly demonstrative of the relationship between these two alpha females. Kellenberger has perhaps one of the most poignant moments in the show with a moving rendition of “Lifeboat” in Act II; she opens up about the incredible pressure she feels to be popular and the precariousness of her position in school, which many can connect with.
Another character that resonates with the audience is Martha. Evans portrays her with an enormous amount of empathy and depth, and her performance of “Kindergarten Boyfriend” makes for an intensely emotional moment. McCarthy is able to take a character that could easily be painted as a two dimensional psychopath and injects layers that make his actions more complicated. His slow motion fight scene is also a highlight of the first Act. Speaking of that fight scene, O’Day and Kappeler also provide an abundance of laughs (and later chills) as the dumb jocks Kurt and Ram. Their performance of “Your Welcome” is both funny and horrifying. Zoe Alexandratos plays all of the adult female characters, and shines in “Shine a Light.” Paul Loebach and Jason Damaso cover all of the adult male characters, and provide one of the most darkly comedic moments of the show with “My Dead Gay Son.” The ensemble of high school stereotypes round out a strong and cohesive cast.
The technical aspects of this show also lend to the production’s success. While the Arts Barn is a great space, it has limited room. Set Designer Maggie Modig makes the most of this space by utilizing multiple mobile set pieces that serve different purposes. Costume/Hair/Makeup Designer, Dana Robinson, brings these iconic 80’s looks to life, especially the blazer, skirt, and knee sock looks of the Heathers. The choreography was sharp, fun, and well executed, especially in group number “Big Fun,” and the aforementioned “Candy Store.” (Choreography by Shari Strier Seymour.) The live music completed the show and was masterful over the difficult score, as was the vocal work (Vocal Music Director- Sam Weich, Orchestral Music Director- Kathryn Bailey.)
At the end of this musical, Martha asks “Are there any happy endings?” If you want to find out if this story has one, I strongly recommend checking out RMT’s production before it’s, like, totally over.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
***Advisory: “Heathers the Musical” contains very adult subject matter, including sex, suicide, and murder. There is also adult language and simulated gunshots. Viewer discretion is strongly advised and this show is recommended for mature audiences only.
“Heathers, the Musical” is playing now through March 24th, 2019 at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn. For more information on tickets for “Heathers, the Musical,” please click here.