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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Heathers: The Musical
Stray Cat Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Cinderella and A Christmas Carol


Cole Brackney, Brittany Howk, and Sara Sanderson
Photo by John Groseclose
The satirical 1988 black comedy film Heathers has been turned into a nifty musical with everything that made the movie have a huge impact on the culture of '80s and '90s teens, and anyone else who felt they were an outsider from the "popular" kids in school. Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy's adaptation also includes plenty of added comical moments and even a huge jolt of tenderness. Stray Cat Theatre presents the Arizona premiere of the pop rock musical in a smartly directed and well-cast production that perfectly portrays the struggles of high school and the neverending desire to fit in—no matter what the cost.

The musical played Off-Broadway last year and, like the film, it focuses on a high school in a fictional Ohio town where the popular kids, especially a trio of girls who are all named Heather, running the school. When Veronica, a former high school nobody, manages to join the trio it makes her popular but also forces her to serve as the protégé and lackey for the group. A budding romance after a run-in with new kid J.D. finds Veronica's life changed even more. When she realizes that the mean-spirited girls and other popular kids in the school are dangerous to the kids they don't like—she is forced to partake in some of the bullying herself—the mysterious, rebellious loner J.D. makes plans with her to get back at their fellow students.

Though the score isn't completely perfect, with a few songs that are just average, this satirical musical comedy has several well-constructed numbers with witty, smart lyrics and recurring musical motifs that blend dialogue and character development, and drive the plot, sometimes at the same time. O'Keefe and Murphy have streamlined many of the key scenes and lines of dialogue from the film into the fast-moving show, and dive a little deeper into the backstory and mind of J.D. and a few of the other main characters. While some of the songs are comical, others are perky and some extremely tender, and the subversive tone of the film is always present.

Stray Cat's cast is just about flawless, with an exceptional turn from Brittany Howk as Veronica that gets to the heart and soul of this conflicted girl. She manages to portray the many layers of Veronica extremely well, from the girl who just wants to fit in as well as the sex-starved teenager and the caring young woman. Howk also has a superb, powerful voice that soars on her many songs. While Cole Brackney is playing a slightly less conflicted version of the character he played in Stray Cat's Pluto earlier this year, he still manages to achieve a character with a shading that is similar yet completely different from that previous role. J.D. is damaged, and Brackney expertly, and slowly, lets us and Veronica realize that his character may be beyond repair. He and Howk also portray a realistic couple—murderous warts and all.

As the three Heathers, Sara Sanderson, Taylor Moskowitz and Elyssa Blonder are all excellent at presenting three women who are very different from each other and believe that everything and everyone exists for their personal amusement. Sanderson has the right authoritative tone in her line delivery, efficiently portraying the woman who is ready to take out anyone who crosses her path; Moskowitz makes a great impression as the ambitious follower who is ready to take over when necessary; and Blonder is enthusiastic as the girl who is ready to make a change, and she also excels on a a great song, "Lifeboat," in act two, which is a gentle plea for help.

As the star football players and school bullies Ram and Kurt, Michael Thompson and Alex Crossland provide some comical touches while Anasofia Gallegos is perfect as Martha Dunnstock, Veronica's friend from kindergarten who is a verbal punching bag for the Heathers, with her performance of the moving yet comically sweet solo "Kindergarten Boyfriend" a major highlight. As several of the "adults" in the show, Chanel Bragg, Tony Blosser and Rob Allocca are well cast, with Bragg's voice soaring on "Shine a Light" and Blosser and Allocca hilarious in their second act duet "Dead Gay Son."

Director Louis Farber does an exceptional job of staging the show on Eric Beeck's static set. He keeps the action moving swiftly while getting clear portrayals of the familiar school stereotypes from his leads. His staging is seamless with virtually non-stop scene changes and he also incorporates the ensemble effectively throughout. Farber doesn't let the darkness of the story get downplayed as he allows the tenderness of the story to occasionally peek through, especially in the moving ending that culminates in showing the emotional impact of the struggle of getting through high school. Choreographer Nicole Olson incorporates a stunning amount of '80s dance moves in to the large ensemble numbers, even including a moment from Michael Jackson's "Thriller," as well as some original steps—all of which are well delivered by the gifted cast.

Curtis Moeller's music direction achieves some lush harmonies from the cast and a rich, full sound from the six-piece band. Beeck's set design features oversized lockers emblazoned with graffiti of the many names teens unfortunately call each other, such as whore, idiot, pig and fag, which tie perfectly into the plot of the show. He efficiently uses just a few small set pieces and benches to quickly become the necessary elements to portray the locations in the story. Danny Chihuahau's costumes play up the high school archetypes of cheerleader, nerd, jock, stoner, etc., and include some stunning color coordinated outfits for the Heathers and Veronica. The lighting design by Daniel Davisson is lush and evocative, with deep blues, purples, and reds as well as moments that pinpoint the area of focus.

This is a large show, with a large cast and a loud resulting sound from the band and musical numbers. While Peter Bish's sound design is fine, on opening night there were numerous sound glitches and several times when the band overpowered the cast or lines of dialogue were completely lost. I'm not sure if these issues can easily be overcome or if this is just too big, and too loud, of a show for the Tempe Performing Arts Center. Fortunately, when Stray Cat presents the rock musical American Idiot next June they will be in their new permanent space, the technically advanced Tempe Center for the Arts, which shouldn't have any of these issues.

School shootings and planned murder rampages are much more uncomfortable topics of conversation today than when the film first premiered. But the decision by O'Keefe and Murphy to incorporate more comical moments and satire played out in musical numbers make it a much easier pill to swallow. While the subjects presented are terrifying in the crazy world we live in, Heathers: The Musical, while at times hilarious, is unflinchingly honest and smart and even strangely uplifting.

Stray Cat Theatre's Heathers: The Musical runs through December 20th, 2015, with performances at the Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 E. 6th Street in Tempe. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480 227-1766 or at straycattheatre.org.

Music, Lyrics Book by Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy Director: Louis Farber
Music Director: Curtis Moeller
Choreographer: Nicole Olson
Production Stage Manager: Amanda Keegan
Assistant Stage Manager: Mychal Anaya
Scenic Design: Eric Beeck
Technical Director: Michael Peck
Costume Design: Danny Chihuahua
Property Design: B. Reeves
Lighting Design: Daniel Davisson
Sound Engineer: Pete Bish

Cast :
Brittany Howk: Veronica Sawyer
Cole Brackney: Jason "J.D." Dean
Sara Sanderson: Heather Chandler
Taylor Moskowitz: Heather Duke
Elyssa Blonder: Heather McNamara
Michael Thompson: Kurt Kelly
Alex Crossland: Ram Sweeny
Anasofia Gallegos: Martha Dunnstock
Chanel Bragg: Ms. Fleming/Veronica's Mom
Tony Blosser: Ram's Dad/Big Bud Dean/Coach Ripper
Rob Allocca: Kurt's Dad/Veronica's Dad/Principal Gowan
Laynie Nelson: Stoner Chick
Lauren McKay: New Wave Girl
Alyssa Lucero: Young Republicanette
Kaivan Mayelzadeh: Beleaguered Geek
Connor Wanless: Preppy Stud
Sam Wilkes: Hipster Dork


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