IS IT COINCIDENCE that Disney’s peppermint zippy High School Musical is playing at Stevenson School at the same time Pacific Rep is offering a musical version of the dark and nasty 1980s teen cult classic called Heathers? I haven’t seen that movie, which shot sixteen-year-old Winona Ryder to fame and fortune back in 1988. Critics have complained that Broadway composer/lyricists Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy toned down the vitriol of Daniel Waters’ film script. Maybe so. But you can forget Grease, let alone Bye Bye Birdie. The new show at the Golden Bough is not your Aunt Mabel’s kind of teenage musical.
The language is down and dirty, the story makes post-Columbine adolescent murder and suicide the stuff of black comedy, the lyrics are intermittently pungent and some of the music so loud that the lady sitting next to me left ten minutes into the first act to search out a place where she might possibly hear the words the singers were belting out with all their might.
But the predominantly youthful opening night audience loved it, so who am I, a struggling octogenarian, to blench or blush?
The title refers to three alpha girl monsters, all three named Heather, who use sex, alcohol, humiliation, blackmail and violence to insure their place atop the food chain of an Ohio high school. This demonic trio were played with venomous conviction on opening night by Jill Miller, Nicole West and Natara Denga. When bright, dowdy and ambitious Veronica Sawyer (a sprightly and gifted Katie Hazdovac) shows she’s several degrees sharper than the boring majority at Westerburg High, the Heathers put her through a quick do-over and she becomes a fourth, if somewhat critical, member of their super-clique. When Veronica resigns in a rage over abuse of a good-hearted dumpy girl named Martha, she takes refuge in the arms and bed of a counter-cultural white knight in black clothing named J.D. Played with impressive vocal and acting skill by Mikey Perdue, J.D. seems at first to offer unconditional adoration and a change from the horror of the Heathers. But he gradually proves to be a high-minded sociopath, who plots to purge Westerburg of snobbery and bitchiness through an elaborate program of mass poisoning, gunfire and bombs, with Veronica as his somewhat unwitting accomplice.
Enough said, except that it’s an evening in which even those characters who start off looking sympathetic end up dead or physically maimed or morally corrupted or all of the above.
The cast, when you can hear them above the orchestra, are excellent. At half the performances, Veronica, the three Heathers and J.D. are played by different actors than those I saw on opening night. There are some particularly impressive adult characterizations, one from Susanne Burns as a dopey and permissive member of the Westerburg faculty whose left-over Berkeley sociological ideas help create a schoolwide stampede for suicide. And there is the versatile D. Scott McQuiston in four roles that establish the prevailing adult cluelessness that make all the youthful vitriol and vengeance possible.
The score seems to lean heavily on the kind of intense recitative that you get, but better done, in Jesus Christ Superstar. Two welcome exceptions are the tuneful “Beautiful,” which of course is deeply ironic, and the wonderfully satisfying recollections of a “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” superbly sung and acted by Velvet Plini as the play’s one consistently sympathetic character.
There are moments that shift from authentic satire into blatant and corny prurience, notably a tasteless and explicit duet concerning their respective private parts performed by Dale Thompson and Ty Barrett as two noxious Westerburg jocks. The aim was to offend. I felt offended.
All that said, the piece pushes against some ugly, dark truths about modern high school life with a kind of Brechtian determination that makes you want to look away but somehow keeps you watching