Words by Ed King / Production pics by Pamela Raith Photography
Dust off your croquet sets and primary colour prom dresses, Heathers the Musical opens this week at The Alexandra Theatre. Directed by Andy Fickman, it runs in Birmingham for five days before heading out to 20 more venues across the UK with a vibrant new cast.
Based on the 1989 cult film classic, this all-singing-all-dancing adaptation centres around 17 year old Veronica Sawyer (Jenna Innes), a less than popular American high school student who uses her forgery skills to win friends and influence people.
Namely the titular Heathers – Chandler (Verity Thompson), Duke (Summer Priest), and McNamara (Elisa Bowden) – who sit at the top of the Westerberg High’s social strata firmly in that order, represented by the colours red, green, and yellow respectively.
The ’Heathers’ are the most revered clique at Westerberg, and blue Veronica eyes them and their endorsement as the safest passage through her formative years. High school can be tough; you need a plan, you need allies. And in her own words Veronica’s so called friends are “just people I work with and our job is being popular and shit.”
But the ubiquitous tale of pimples and peer pressure comes with a twist, as Veronica’s “teen angst bullshit has a body count” after meeting the dark horse Jason Dean (Jacob Fowler) – an itinerant rich kid, with a “destruction business” dad who’s got more explosives lying around the house than is arguably healthy.
After some cafeteria hysteria with the school’s top jocks, Kurt Kelly (Alex Woodward) and Ram Sweeney (Morgan Jackson), the growing bond between Veronica and the abbreviated JD becomes the catalyst for killing off the classroom’s bullies and bitches – using Veronica’s flexible handwriting to pen suicide notes for the wildly popular pupils. That, and a ceramic cup full of bleach and a couple of handguns.
First on the list is Heather Chandler, who vows to destroy Veronica’s reputation after she drunkenly stands up to (and throws up on) the top girl at a party. With Kurt and Ram as targets two and three, following a failed gang rape attempt and some salacious school yard rumours to protect their egos and shame Veronica.
Told in part by Veronica’s inner monologue, confessing all in her “Dear diary” entries, and shoulder to shoulder song and dance routines, the stage is set for an unrelenting musical. One that murders three people over two acts and explores the darker corners of teenage life – alongside a sycophantic society’s willingness to accept any young adult self-destruction.
In short, bullies beware – as the brochure proclaims: ‘it might kill to be a nobody, but it is murder being a somebody.’ And to borrow a line from another brooding rebel, death makes angles of us all. So, you can probably get away with a couple before the end of term.
The curtains lifts for Heather the Musical to a full cast cafeteria routine of ‘Beautiful’, the opening song and a buzzword for acceptance and popularity. And whist the Birmingham audience was predominantly too young to have any direct relationship with the era or original that spawned this production, the theatre wide whoops showed deep love for Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s modern day homage.
Skilfully lit by Ben Cracknell, the fast-moving narrative stays close to the film, with enough key words and phrases kept in to give those that can a few chances to lip sync the original script. Everyone born after the millennium seems to know the songs verbatim too.
There are some wonderful additions, with some useful padding to the story behind the bullets that kill Kurt and Ram, and some wider historical references that show even the most popular and most unpopular can still share a past.
The previously gun toting JD relies more fighting than firing, no doubt in light of the disturbingly continuous school shootings in North America since the original film came out. And much of the story is told through song – such as the poignant ‘Lifeboat’, where yellow Heather bares her soul before eating a fist full of sleeping tablets.
The perpetually bullied Martha Dunnstock (Kingsley Morton) also gets a little more time in the spotlight with ‘Kindergarten Boyfriend’, sung superbly, as she unlocks the memories of when her weight or social standing didn’t seem to matter.
But perhaps the best new kid at school comes in the opening song of Act Two, where the fathers of recently deceased Kurt and Ram – who’s staged suicide was purported to hide their homosexuality – come out of their own closets with the song ‘My Dead Gay Son’. A real highlight of the new version.
Heathers the Musical debuted at Joe’s Pub in 2010 and first opened off Broadway in 2014, going on to win ‘Best New Musical’ at the Whats On Stage Awards in 2019. Supremely popular, the song and dance stage show run has built up a pan Atlantic legion of fans, with a score that has sold across the world.
All the principal players in the 2023 show deliver their roles with aplomb – with stand out voices coming from Jenna Innes, Jacob Folwer, and Kingsley Morton. Alex Woodward and Morgan Jackson bring a superb Kurt/Ram caricature double act, and the cast carries no weak links – energetically committing to 22 songs and reprises, whilst covering every square inch of David Shields’ versatile stage.
The only downside is the dark subject matter is too easily glossed over, with a pep rally score that arguably fails to reflect the dour and self destructive journey the cast are going on. Filling out every corner of the two hour running time, the narrative moves along a little quickly at points leaving some characters and scenes a little undeveloped.
It’s clear JD’s dad is a bit of a psycho, and Ms Flemming is a bit of a flake, but there was a missed opportunity to see more through thodse adults eyes. And the somewhat cavalier approach to rape is just worrying.
So, if you’re looking for a dark, gritty, live theatre realisation of Daniel Waters’ acerbic analysis of High School hierarchy and teen angst in the greedy 1980’s… this is not it.
But if you’re coming of age and want a fast paced, colourful, and catchy reflection of the horrors only a teenager understands, then get yourself a ticket to Heathers the Musical and enjoy this fantastic carousel of a show.
Heathers the Musical runs at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until 20 May. For more information and link to online ticket sales, visit www.atgtickets.com/shows/heathers-the-musical/the-alexandra-theatre-birmingham
For more from The Alexandra Theatre Birmingham, visit www.atgtickets.com/venues/the-alexandra-theatre-birmingham