Saturday 27 October 2018

Heathers: The Musical - Musical Review

What: Heathers - The Musical
When: 26 October - 3 November 2018
Where: St Martin's Theatre
Written by: Kevin Murphy and Laurence O'Keefe
Direction and lighting by: Jack Wilkinson
Musical direction by: Peter Verhagen
Performed by: Elyse Batson, Matthew Bertram, Tess Branchflower, Antoinette Davis, Matt Di Nardo, Morgan Dooley-Axup, Houston Dunlevy, Edu Herrera, Alexandra Knight, Cody Leggett, Peter Levey, Grace Maddern, Jayla McLennan, Timothy Ian McMullin, Jack Michel, Amy Nguyen, Alexander Palamara, Madeline Pratt, Dean Robinson, Oliver Ryan, Edward Seiffert, Alison Shuttleworth, Sean Smyth, and Tess Walsh
Choreography by: Grace Maddern
Alexandra Knight, Jayla McLennan (keys), Grace Maddern and Morgan Dooley-Axup - photo by Matthew Howat
It's all about everything Heathers this spring. The cult 1988 movie never gets old, the spinoff TV series is all the rage right now, and Heathers: The Musical is popping up on stages around Melbourne. Right now you can see it playing at St Martin's Theatre in South Yarra.

This production of Heathers: The Musical is the latest offering by GJ Productions. You may recall my January review of their version of Twelfth Night which I really enjoyed for it's boldness of interpretation. Heathers is less successful for the most part because it lacks exactly that element.

Wilkinson directed both productions but whereas in Twelfth Night he committed to a Commedia del'Arte idea, there is no discernable point of view he has brought to Heathers: The Musical. I should mention there is great boldness in the technical elements and the scope of the production. At it's most overwhelming this production has 24 performers on the Irene Mitchell stage. There would have been 25 people but there was no room for the percussionist (Di Nardo) so he was relegated to backstage. Normally the Irene Mitchell feels like quite a large playing space but this production makes it feel like The Butterfly Club... almost.

Obviously this means there is not enough room for any big dance routines. Maddern is listed as the choreographer but to be honest it feels more like traffic management than dance. Having said that, nobody tripped over anyone else and some interesting shapes and groupings were created and that is definitely an achievement in this circumstance.

Heathers: The Musical is a spin-off of the 1988 movie starring Winona Ryder (Veronica) and Christian Slater (JD). Whilst the movie was a cutting and incisive black comedy commenting on the rash of teenage suicides and why it was happening, the musical is much tamer in philosophy although perhaps also much more direct about interpersonal struggles.

One of the key quotes in the movie is "Society accepts any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself". Screen writer Daniel Walters is talking about the pain teenagers inflict on themselves and others. It was the 80s and the boredom and ennui enveloping the youth in a world which had perfected consumerism is reflected beautifully when Walters wrote "teenagers are cruel and parents are unresponsive." Nothing anyone does seems to get the attention of the parents and so the kids just keep upping the stakes, desperate for someone to call a halt. In the end it takes one of there own to bring an end to the madness, but in an act of naive prophesy Veronica points out early in the film "Somebody else is just going to take her place."

It is not for nothing JD quotes Baudelaire. The premise of the movie Heathers has strong links to the poet's seminal work Les Fleur Du Mal. In this book he is critical of the new (1857), orderly streets of Paris and the rise of industrialism bringing a bourgeois cleanliness and order which was alienating to the ragamuffins and ne'erdowells of the old order. Nothing represents this more outstandingly in Heathers than the game of croquet which is the centrepiece, and the constant references to pate.

Heathers: The Musical focuses more on high school, putting the emphasis more squarely on the quote "...not because society didn't care but because school is society." As such, the story gets smaller, but what O'Keefe and Murphy have done is to make some of the smaller moments pack a much harder punch. Scenes such as the date rapes, bullying, peer pressure, and the father's accepting their sons' homosexuality stand out so much more than in the movie.

In the GJ Productions version, there has been a strong commitment to reproducing the 80's aesthetic in the costumes. The rest of the production elements have been kept to the bare minimum which is probably a good choice given the lack of space. I do wish Wilkinson and Verhagen had taken this approach with casting and musical arrangement. At least 5 actors did not need to be there and have no significant contribution to the show except as chorus, and whilst I love the ambition of Verhagen's musical ensemble I can't help but wonder why Tinder Tales can do what they did with 3 musicians and three instruments, but Verhagen needs 8 musicians and at least 11 (possibly more instruments)?

On the positive side, I was astounded at the technical ambition. This is a production where all 16 of the cast had radio mics, the band were reinforced, there is foldback, and conductor cam! If only someone had remembered to turn on the FOH sound...

Look, I usually don't mention production elements when nobody is credited for them but in this case I have a small rant. As I just mentioned, this is a complex live sound set up and until now I have never known anyone brave (or silly) enough to attempt this without having a live mix engineer. I say this because even when somebody finally worked out  there was no FOH sound and turned it on, it was clear nobody was monitoring it because we still couldn't hear a lot of the dialogue and some singing (a problem caused partly by the size of the band). In the end it didn't really matter the cast had mics on because nobody was there to listen to make sure they were doing their job. This is an easy fix and I hope GJ Productions learnt their lesson last night and bring someone in to mix the sound for the rest of the season.

This brings me to the point where I have to admit it is hard for me to say much about the production because I couldn't hear much of it over the foldback and the reeds. Davis (Veronica) gave a dynamic and nuanced performance and Maddern (Heather Chandler) was a powerhouse as head bully. She really comes into her own as the ghost. Pratt was also scene stealing at times as Heather Duke. Michel was good as JD but I felt he played the role too slavishly mimicking Slater in the movie. I was also extremely impressed with Knight as Ms Fleming and Batson's Martha was heartbreakingly sweet.

There were some great musical moments including 'The Me Inside of Me' and 'My Dead Gay Son' was an experience of great beauty and pain. 'Blue' was incredibly well done but the actual content was more than my particular palette enjoys. My plus one actually laughed at me when he saw the distaste on my face as the refrain of "swordfight in her mouth" kept being sung over and over again.

This production of Heathers: The Musical is solid if somewhat uninspiring. Sometimes less is more and you can't do a proscenium arch size production on a studio size stage without the whole thing being compromised. Having said that, if you love Heathers (in all it's remediated versions) you will get a kick out of this show.

2.5 Stars

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