The extreme always seems to make an impression, so color me impressed that How Do You Like Me Now Productions, as the theatrical producing entity of Erase Hate Through Art, is producing Heathers: The Musical this Halloween season! It’s a real scream! And totally an extreme example of what both HDYLMN and EHTA stand for, when it comes to creating a world that’s free of hate and bullying. Produced by Grant Meyers and Directed by Ed Higgins with Musical Direction by Andrew Zile and Choreography by Kristin Rigsby, this community theatre area premiere of the 80’s cult-classic-movie-turned-stage-musical is perfect for fall, showing us just what sort of cruel tricks teenagers can get up to when it comes to the social pecking order of things in that insane circus-zoo called high school.
What’s your damage, Heathers? Let’s get that out of the way. With an intimate space like the Black Box Theatre of Chesapeake Arts Center, acoustics are a tremendous challenge that pose a great conundrum to Director Ed Higgins and Musical Director Andrew Zile. With some more tinkering and fine tuning, as the performance venue has limited options and opportunity for microphones and amplification, the sound balance issues that arise for this particular production should work themselves out. At present, the overwhelming sound of the enthusiastically live orchestra, conducted by Zile, overplays the soloists, particularly when they are blocked at the back of the house. When the soloists are belting their faces off directly in front of you, it is more than evident that they are talented performers with exceptional voices, but due to the restrictive nature and poor overall acoustics of the space, this becomes a challenge that has yet to be overcome.
That said, Director Ed Higgins’ use of the entirety of the space borders on genius when it comes to blocking and layout. The main stage space, which is currently set with audience in a three-quarter thrust, has an open play area for the majority of the scenes happening in the performance. Flanking the right side of the stage are a series of stairs, which Higgins uses to mimic and model a ‘high school stairwell’, which is perfect for some of the more casual scenes where Veronica reads from her diary. Higgins also takes the back left corner of the theatre and transforms it into the multi-character bedroom. This is a brilliant use of the full space, really making the theatrical experience for the audience a wholly inclusive one. (Once they overcome the challenge that this presents with vocals and sound, it will be a spectacular way to layout this particular show.)
The brilliant blocking is one of the great many successes that Higgins’ achieves in his overall vision of the show, which is primarily to showcase how truly awful bullying can be. Falling in line with the mission of the company— erasing hate through art— Higgins hones in on those bullying moments where students tear each other apart and are brutal with one another, to show how detrimental such behaviors can be. There are nuanced details that support this message hidden in plain sight, compliments of Properties Designer Emma Hawthorn and Properties Assistant Ann Pallanck, like the tombstones in the cemetery which read things like “RIP—Hate” or “The Clique” or “Bullying.” The bridge projection with the suicide helpline phone number displayed behind it during Martha’s solo “Kindergarten Boyfriend” is another moment where Higgins has worked hard to reinforce the momentum behind erasing hate and offering help to those in need because of bullying.
While the aforementioned projection and striking in addition to being quite meaningful, the overall use of the giant white scrim is somewhat questionable. The idea behind using it to feature as a projector screen, and subsequently “veil” certain scenes— though this only happens for the initial bathroom-vomit scene and later for a ‘spoiler’ scene with dramatic effect (and not to hide or cover the raunchier scenes that occur in the show, which Higgins and the cast embrace fully)— doesn’t come to fruition as readily as it is intended. This is partially to do with the limited lighting capabilities of the venue, and because of it, sometimes the projections are lost or washed out. This is mostly true during the party at Ram’s scene where the pool projection is faded beyond recognition and the school football field is also unidentifiable during the Pep Rally scene. With more tinkering and development, perhaps this concept can live up to its potential.
Further praise is owed still to the Props Department Team of Hawthorn and Pallanck, for their intensely decorated properties, like the coffins, the high school lockers, the Slurpee Machine and chip-rack featured inside the 7-11, among other nifty things featured all throughout the show. Perhaps the most praiseworthy of all these elements is the actual Cavalier RS car door that Hawthorn and Pallanck have transformed into a ‘stage car’ for the Heathers during the cemetery scene. This is beyond words and authenticates the 80’s experience beyond compare.
One flawlessly exciting element of the performance is the fierce dance routines that Choreographer Kristin Rigsby puts into play throughout the production. With callbacks and nods to a variety of 80’s dance moves, each of the big dance numbers are loaded with enthusiasm energy, and an overall exhilaration that drives the ensemble through these routines. This is most prominently noticed in the opening number, “Beautiful”, again at the top of Act II for “My Dead Gay Son” and right in the middle of the first act for the party scene at Ram’s house, during the number “Big Fun.” Rigsby is also a gifted ‘small-groups’ choreographer, as she readily displays with the saucy and seductive hip-popping routine used for the three Heathers in “Candy Store.”
Matching Rigsby’s intensity when it comes to the overall verve and spirit of the production, Producer Grant Meyers hits the nail on the head when it comes to costuming the show. The 80’s are in full flare all across the ensemble, showcasing a myriad of styles from that era, all of which gel together to fully display the various “schoolyard stereotypes” be it super jock, goth girl, young Republican, or plastic popular posse. Meyers does an exceptional job of paying homage to the movie when it comes to keeping the titular characters in their signature colors. Heather Duke gets the envious green that matches her “acne-of-the-soul personality” when it comes to how she feels about her placement in the popularity hierarchy, while Heather McNamara gets the vibrant, yet cowardly yellow because she’s just there by the graces of the other Heathers. Meyers finds a series of racy red outfits fit for Queen Bee Heather Chandler, and does an even more masterful job with her silvery prom dress (completely with the actress’ fabulous makeup effects) once certain events in the show happen and Heather Chandler transitions into her new state of existence.
With fantastic costumes and fabulous choreography, it’s no wonder the ensemble feels motivated and compelled to put forth a tremendously powerful sound and overall driven attitude for numbers like “Big Fun”, “Beautiful”, and “Hey Yo, Westerburg.” And although their attitudes shift dramatically by the show’s conclusion, the infectious spirit of triumph and oneness rings true inside the closing number, “Seventeen (Reprise)”, showing an unwavering vocal strength among this ensemble of actors playing teenage kids, some of whom are actual teenagers!
Whilst the premise of the musical floats around the popular kids, the jocks, the losers, the outcasts, and all varieties of high school life, there are adult characters that feature into the mix as well. Jim Gross, who doubles up as both the Gym Coach and Ram’s Dad, gets his voice and rowdy showmanship on during “My Dad Gay Son”, a tent-revival style number that riles up the crowd to a world of acceptance. Herein Gross shares a hilarious dance ditty with Kurt’s Dad (played by Higgins) and the whole number is a show-stopper because of it. Derek Cooper, who plays the grody and barking Big Bud Dean, is another one of the adult character actors worth mentioning for his zany interpretation of the boorish brute. And then there’s Ms. Fleming played by Jennifer Alexander. Epitomizing the lost hippie culture of the free-lovin’ 60’s, Alexander goes for the peace, love, and rainbows approach with vigor, and really belts it out of the park with her stellar and powerful vocal prowess during “Shine a Light.”
Ever on the outside looking in, Martha Dunstock (Kristen Demers) is the iconic poster child bully target practice. Demers maximizes her outcast appearance with way too many barrettes clipped into her hair, a ridiculously childish unicorn sweatshirt, and overall mannerisms and gestures that set her miles apart from the cool kids. This is done, to chilling effect, to really drive home the emphasis on how cruel kids can be to other kids. With a desperate and pitiable outcry during her featured solo “Kindergarten Boyfriend”, the audience is entreated to the deep pain such bullying and tormenting can really cause an individual.
Leaders of the heinous pack of jock-jerks, Ram Sweeney (Zach Husak) and Kurt Kelley (Michael Leard) fit the bill for hulked up high school hot-heads who have nothing better to do with their time than bully the weaklings, mistreat women, and flat-out exist as the scummiest of scum when it comes to high school stereotypes. Leard and Husak both have the look for the role, and play exceptionally well off one another, going to town whole hog when it comes to their duet “Blue.” The song itself— which is raunchy, filthy, and completely in promotion of date-rape— is a great display of Husak’s vocal range as well as his sustainable control. The pair fully embrace and embody the rogue-jerk nature that accompanies these two characters, ultimately fitting with great ease into the high school hierarchy of the show.
The Heathers. The musical is named after them, right? So clearly they’re the most important feature therein. There’s Heather Duke (Emily Wesselhoff) who is perpetually second in command, just waiting to seize her moment in the spotlight, and steal all the thunder. Vicious and vile and perhaps even more sinister of soul than Heather Chandler, Wesselhoff’s character leads the student ensemble in a horrific chanting outcry of “Shine A Light (Reprise)” at poor Heather McNamara, encouraging and taunting her to commit suicide. Wesselhoff has an exacting control over her bitchy delivery of the character, especially during this reprise, and really puts the ruthlessness of high school popularity into the naked eye of exposure.
Playing Heather McNamara, Ellie Parks holds her own against the other Heathers, really finding an identity outside of the group identity “Plastic Posse Posers.” Despite starting in the popular clique, and rearing the ugly head of bullying, taunting, teasing, and all of the other nasty behaviors that go along with that lifestyle, Parks balances the character of Heather McNamara into an honest and insecure being by the second act. This is largely revealed in her solo number “Lifeboat”, which is as hauntingly disturbing as it is tragically beautiful. The number is well within Parks’ vocal and emotionally expressive wheelhouse and she does it, as well as the character’s transition and transformation a great justice.
Despite being the Queen Bee and Queen Bitch Bully of the show, Bryce Gudelsky as Heather Chandler is the villain that we love to hate. Bitchy, sassy, fierce, nasty, and all of those sinfully unsavory characteristics that makes up every Queen Bee of high school, Gudelsky tears a new one into the music of Heathers and the character of Heather Chandler. There is a dominating air about her whenever she struts onto the stage, an unyielding confidence that makes her the meanest mean girl, the bitchiest boss, and the most unrelenting urchin of evil that really epitomizes the class-A bully that ruins lives in high school. In addition to channeling this heinous ferocity, Gudelsky is gifted with a sensational voice that belts through “Candy Store”, successfully owning the number and making it grovel and bow to her. Gudelsky has other moments throughout the show where her Heather Chandler persona dominates the scene, but none so memorable as once she starts up the harrowing and haunting trio of the jock boys and herself singing “”Yo Girl.”
Speaking of unbalanced characters, JD Dean (Luis Montes) is the epitomizing opposite of a Heather or is he? Montes is perfect for the role, with a voice that really suits solo numbers like “Freeze Your Brain” and an empathy and emotionally expressive pathway that makes that number in particularly hit home hard on deeper levels. His slow-motion fight choreography featured during “Fight For Me” isn’t half bad either. Montes’ character devolves quickly, where and how can’t be specified, but his presence is striking, his vocal performance inspiring, and his interactions— from beginning to end with Veronica (Olivia Winter) drive the show forward hardcore.
Winter, as the non-Heathery Heather named Veronica, is a surprising force when it comes to narrating the story while simultaneously existing inside of it. This is a delicate balancing act for most performers, when it comes to actively telling a tale that you’re then required to exist inside of, but it’s a challenge that Winter rises to with great ease and much success. With vocal strength that rivals the others, and a passionate blaze of fury that funnels through numbers like “Dead Girl Walking”, there’s no stopping this Veronica once she gets going. There is a dynamism and a magnetism that supersedes even JD’s freakishly enigmatic charm, pulling all attention into Veronica’s plight as the story unfolds. Truly caught in the middle, Winter makes Veronica the protagonist, her own antagonist, narrator, and plot vessel all in one fell swoop that is most unforgettable.
This is a show with a message. So pluck me with a chainsaw, Heather, get over to see that message in full force at How Do You Like Me Now Productions, because a lot like the senior class of Westerburg High, Heathers: The Musical won’t be around for long.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Heathers: The Musical plays through October 29, 2017 with How Do You Like Me Now Productions in the Black Box Theatre space of The Chesapeake Arts Center— 194 Hammonds Lane in Brooklyn Park, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online.