Heathers: the Musical is an intense roller-coaster of a show, careening from biting satire and dark comedy to touching and intense emotion to hope. In the 2013 Off-Broadway debut, based on the 1989 movie of the same name starring Winona Ryder, a high school girl joins and then turns on the ruling clique of her school, the Heathers. The show strikes a slightly less relentlessly dark tone than the movie, providing backstories for the characters and allowing us to see their vulnerabilities and emotions, which only makes the ride wilder, as it whiplashes from ridiculing dumb football jocks and hippy-dippy teachers to touching seriously on themes of drinking and drugs, bullying, sex and assault, homophobia, abusive parents, toxic masculinity, school violence and teen suicide, and then ties it all up again with a rousing closing number.
If such a story requires stamina of as well as providing enjoyment for the audience, you can imagine what it demands of the players. The cast of Heathers is up to the task and then some. The musical is almost entirely sung through, with a score consisting of 25 numbers with underscoring through short scenes in between. Director Lee Michelle Rosenthal deftly keeps the action moving at a furious clip. No one in the ensemble misses a beat. The choreography (by Shari Strier Seymore) is clean, complex and compelling, especially for the Heathers themselves. The fight choreography, too, is excellent, especially the slow-motion battle during “Fight for Me” including an amusing visual quote from The Matrix.
Vocal music director Sam Weich has done a masterful job leading the cast through a very complicated score, with multiple modulations and tricky harmonies. A few of the more complex chords could be cleaner, but the large group harmonies and the Heathers’ trios, in particular, were juicy and rich. The ensemble of students managed to differentiate characters such as “Hipster Dork” (Jay Conner) and “Young Republicanette” (Elizabeth Gillespie), while even imbuing them with some emotion when the score allowed.
The adults in the show (Zoe Alexandratos, Paul Loebach, and Jason Damaso), double various roles as parents, teachers, principal and coach. These actors are veterans, and it shows. Each has a standout number, Alexandratos in her rousing “Shine a Light” and Loebach and Damaso in their ironically happy-clappy “My Dead Gay Son.”
As those sons, Chris O’Day and Joe Kappeler are suitably stupid and obnoxious, and are punished not only by being murdered, but by having to spend the afterlife in their Calvins, a fate that the actors pull off with aplomb.
The Heathers are of course the core of the show, and Rachel Naugel, Marcie Schwartz and Katie Kellenberger are excellent. They sound gorgeous, dance terrifically, and (in iconic red, green and yellow 90s costumes by Dana Robinson) look fabulous (watch for their color-matched spectator pumps). Ellenberger also pulls off a surprisingly moving and vulnerable number, “Lifeboat,” proving that even the horrible Heathers deserve some sympathy.
Even more touching is Megan Evans as Martha Dunstock, Veronica’s outcast former best friend. In her wrenching and beautiful ballad “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” Evans lays bare the depth of pain adolescents can feel, and the tragic consequences it can have.
But the real emotional core of the show, surprisingly, is the murderous J.D., played with touching depth by Michael McCarthy. He moves deftly from tough-guy fighter to intense lover to black-coated psychopath, while showing amazing vulnerability (there were tears in his eyes) in numbers like “Freeze Your Brain” and “Our Love is God.”
And then there is Veronica. The focus of the show, Veronica is offstage a total of about 4 minutes and 45 seconds. She has to veer from scared sheep to queen bee to drunken vixen to murderous to remorseful. Bailey Wolf pulls off all of these and more, while maintaining a core sweetness that was lacking in both the movie and original musical incarnations. You come away believing that she can restore the innocence of her damaged peers by the force of her personality alone. Her voice is pure and powerful, well suited to the pop pyrotechnics of the role. One of the many highlights of the show is the look on Bailey’s face when she realizes the murders have unleashed a flood of tolerance and goodwill among the homophobic bigots of the town. She and J.D. share some truly gorgeous harmonic duets, especially “Seventeen,” when they hope against hope that they can just go back to being normal teenagers again.
Kathryn Bailey’s 5-piece band, hidden off stage right, supports the cast capably without overwhelming. Maggie Modig’s set was sparse but serviceable, leaving director Rosenthal with plenty of options to move her cast around. There were a few late light cues in Andrew R. Dodge’s design, but presumably, these will fade as the show goes on.
Rosenthal and her cast and crew deserve congratulations. Heathers is funny, shocking, satirical, intense, fast-paced, moving, and ultimately, uplifting. Grab a ticket as soon as you can. There are 8 more shows and it is already selling out. Then buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Heathers: the Musical, presented by Rockville Musical Theater in partnership with Arts on the Green, plays through March 24, 2019, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sunday Matinees at 2 pm, at The Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD 20878
Purchase tickets at the door, at 301-258-6394, or online.