Review: ‘Heathers’ at Red Branch Theatre Company

High school can be rough on anyone, but in Heathers it’s murder. The well-mounted area premiere at Red Branch Theatre Company shows that the 1989 movie, which poked fun at making the grade in grade school, has lost none of its darkness in the long transition to stage musical.

L to R: The three Heathers: Megan Bunn, Tiara Whaley, and Geocel Batista. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.
L to R: The three Heathers: Megan Bunn, Tiara Whaley, and Geocel Batista. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

If its adolescent rage comes off as more woeful now than subversive, it’s because times have changed and audiences are more shell-shocked when it comes to tales of high school violence.

In any case, this 2014 off-Broadway adaptation by Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blonde, Bat Boy) and Kevin Murphy fits quite snugly with Red Branch’s recent run of smart, after-school anti-bullying vehicles. It forms a caravan with the likes of Carrie (The Musical), Dogfight (The Musical) and Spring Awakening that stretches on toward that upcoming Grand Guignol roadside distraction, Evil Dead (The Musical). Bullies never die; they must be exorcized — preferably in song.

Red Branch has put a winning ensemble in place for this premiere production. Freelance Director Amelia Acosta Powell clearly brings a casting finesse from her association with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., that pays dividends in a string of talented newcomers.

Vivian Cook shows savvy comic timing as lead Veronica Sawyer, the wily girl who uses her skills at forgery to navigate out of the target class and into the protected inner circle of popular girls. Cook has a sweet face and a singing voice to match, well used in the soul-searching ballads “Dead Girl Walking” and “Seventeen.”

The collective “I” of the popular girls is well represented by three vicious senior trollops, each bearing the generational brand name of Heather. At Red Branch, Tiara Whaley, Megan Bunn, and Geocel Batista play the girls who live to hate, and you will love them for it.

All three get a moment in the spotlight, of course, with Whaley’s Heather Chandler a model of perfectly groomed sadism in “Candy Store” and “The Me Inside of Me.” As Heather Duke, Bunn shows her stuff in “Big Fun” and Batista rules the school in “Blue” and “Westerburg Cheer” as Heather McNamara.

As if casual amorality weren’t enough, Heathers also has its sociopaths, ranging from the flashy to a stealthier variety. Taylor Witt and Tendo Nsubuga as the extroverted football brutes Kurt and Ram are both funny and sadly believable. Their rapport is spot-on in the too-blue-to-describe “Blue” and in that spirited production number “Big Fun.”.

More toward the lethal-drone end of the sociopathic spectrum is second lead J.D., the moody loner played by another of the cast’s charismatic newcomers, Hasani Allen. In his black trench coat and don’t-mess-with-me bearing, Allen makes J.D. the sort of protector a girl like Veronica would run to after being repulsed by the sadistic cruelty of the Heathers.

Hasani Allen (J.D.) sings "Freeze Your Brain" to Vivian Cook (Veronica Sawyer). Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.
Hasani Allen (J.D.) sings “Our Love is God” to Vivian Cook (Veronica Sawyer). Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

Amy Williamson as pressure-target Martha Dunnstock has everyone in the audience identifying with her pain. She is such a passive victim that it comes as a surprise when she stands center stage and gives full voice to the show’s most wounded ballad, “Kindergarten Boyfriend.”

Others in the cast equally worthy of note are Keith Richards and the always-remarkable Wil Lewis III, both playing a variety of choice adult roles. Their sweet-and-sour duet of “My Dead Gay Son” is by turns a shocker and a hoot.

Annette Wasno offers just as good support in her multiple female roles, and Amanda Spellman is flat-out sensational as Ms. Fleming, who takes the lead on the faux-gospel “Shine a Light” to give Act II a needed lift.

There are many talents to discover in this production, but one of the most consistently delightful is Choreographer Brandon Glass. Very rarely does Glass fall back on formula combinations, preferring to find the quirky and expressive side of each group of characters.

The live accompaniment by Conductor John Henderson and a four-piece band often sound like a much larger professional ensemble. Once again in the intimate confines of Red Branch the musical harmonies are a delight to the ear, with only a few of the lyrics getting lost in the shuffle.

The multi-level platform set by Scenic Designer Clifford Hannon helps keeps the action fluid, while Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin is understated but workable. Costume Designer Cierra Coan accomplishes a lot on a clearly limited budget.

Heathers shows that the Red Branch Theatre Company is determined to stay edgy and relevant while it flexes its production muscles. This is another must-see in a mostly impressive showing.

And by the way: Ever wonder what really became of all those mean girls and bullyboys you knew in high school? Are you kidding? Haven’t you been watching the election coverage.

Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Heathers plays through August 27, 2016 at Red Branch Theatre Company performing at the Drama Learning Center – 9130-I Red Branch Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 997-9352, or purchase them online.

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.