Thursday, May 28, 2015

"Heathers: The Musical"

Heathers: The Musical
Laurence O’Keefe Y Kevin Murphy (Book, Music & Lyrics)
Presenting at the Victoria Theatre, San Francisco

Time and again in the past few years, Ray of Light Theatre has produced quirky, exciting, new musicals that most other local theatres probably would not consider offering (Carrie the Musical, Triassic Parq, Yeast Nation, Jerry Springer the Opera); and the company has staged each in increasingly outstanding manner.  Their latest West Coast premiere, Heathers: The Musical (book, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy) only further solidifies Ray of Light as a Bay Area leader in musical theatre that is cutting-edge in its willingness to push all sorts of boundaries and is knock-your-socks-off in terms of musical freshness and quality.

Before us is a two-level high school gym with giant, colorful, hanging icons of the teen-cult movie that inspired this musical (Princess phone; school lunch tray with Cheetos, mystery meat, and fries; croquet mallets and balls, and a menacing gun).  Our narrator for the evening, Veronica Sawyer, enters the gym to relate her story, soon surrounded by teens and teachers who blast in rousing style of song and dance the opening Beautiful.  We and Veronica soon realize ‘beautiful’ in this Sherwood, Ohio teen set is as three gorgeous, short-skirted girls all named Heather define it. Anyone not invited into their closed set of friends risks being demeaned, ridiculed, and totally ostracized by the Heathers and their jock and cheerleader entourage.  This high school in fact looks like all of our worst memories of high school.  We quickly recognize the bullying football players, ignored brainy kids, shunned heavy-set girl in the corner along with the slightly weird and the totally ‘cool and in’ sets.  Veronica has sized all this up, too, and realizes the only way to move up in this scene is to reject her nice, scholarly self and go to the dark side of the Heathers.  What she soon realizes, however, there is even a darker side to explore when a strange, handsome JD arrives in black trench coat and stands up immediately to the pushy jocks and taunting Heathers.  Their love at first sight progresses to JD’s leading Veronica down a path that is ever-more dangerous and yet totally for her tempting and even satisfying. 

All of this unfolds amid solos, duets, and total ensembles of rock-style music sung at high decibel with universal clarity, pitch, and pizzazz.  And while the music often highlights the teens’ cruelty to each other as well as their personal insecurities and angst, the bitingly funny lyrics and accompanying jaw-dropping choreography ensure constant smiles and tapping feet on the part of us as audience.   Special hats go off to Alex Rodriguez whose choreography is imaginative, perfectly executed, and totally in step with the 1980s setting.  He shows great ability to use exaggeration, perfect synchronicity, and subtlety to great effect.  Particular kudos go to him and director Erik Scanlon for some slow-motion scenes that are as good as I have seen on a local stage.

Every person in this cast can sing and perform in a style that sells a number and wins high applause.  As Veronica and JD, Jessica Quarles and Jordon Bridges each solo with confidence and maturity.  Together, they create an attraction that can be viscerally felt through piercing eye contact, sweaty kisses, and powerful duets like their appeal to each other just to be Seventeen.  As the Heathers, Jocelyn Pickett, Samantha Rose Cardenas, and Lizzie Moss each bring appropriate haughtiness and swagger as the ruling class of Sherwood High along with individual and collective abilities to belt out and sell through terrific singing and high-kicking dancing.  While each starts as a stereotype that looks much like the others, all find ways to let us watch her Heather develop into a unique and memorable character.  The jocks Kurt and Ram (Paul Hovannes and Nick Quintell) are bullies enough but even more, they are hilarious in their bullying as they sing about such choice subjects as ‘blue balls.’  One of the most touching performances comes from Laura Arthur as the weight-challenged Martha whose kindergarten crush on footballer Ram is recalled movingly in her Kindergarten Boyfriend.

As much as all these and other cast members shine in their individual or small group moments in the spotlight, the most exciting and rousing numbers are the excellent full-chorus productions.  So much is happening on the big stage before us that I wanted to hit the DVR and listen again to the beautiful, full-cast harmonies and to watch once more the fast-paced dance, wild gyrations, and multiple mini-scenes before us.

What make Heathers: The Musical more than just a great concert and funny story are the serious subjects broached, often in very irreverent ways.  Teen suicide, date rape, the drug culture, severe bullying, parents and teachers being totally out-of-touch of what teens really need and want – these difficult subjects and more are laid bare before us, often in ways to cause us to shudder a bit while also laughing (like two previously homophobic dads triumphantly singing “I love my dead, gay son”).  Like Book of Mormon, Heathers: The Musical ventures through mine fields of topics shunned by most musicals and does so with biting hilarity, music that soars, and a production long to be remembered.

Heathers: The Musical continues through June 13 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco.

Rating: 5 E’s

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