“I want to go back to high school!” said almost no one ever. “Heathers” the musical, based on the 1988 film of the same name, extends this negative sentiment by showing all the reasons why high school boils up bitter memories for most people: the impossibility of navigating social circles, nonsensical dramas that make everyone’s lives worse and preternatural hormonal appetites. Yet as the show digs deeper into the surface of these ideas, it begins to transform into a satirical social commentary on depression, suicide, rape, mental health and violence within the sphere of high school students.
“Heathers” opens with a brilliantly upbeat chorus number titled “Beautiful” that informs the audience of the social ladder by showcasing all the common personalities found in a high school, but more so the crude labels given, such as “Freak! Slut! Burnout! Bug-eyes! Poser! Lard-ass!” The plot then follows the diary entries of an apprehensive senior, Veronica (Caity Redfern), as she ventures through this world and infiltrates the Heathers, a group of queens ruling Westerberg High (think “Mean Girls”), but encounters numerous consequences for succumbing to people’s expectations of her.
One is the beginning of a relationship with Mr. Gloomy-and-Moody Jason “JD” Dean (Noah Ramirez). In an amusing, cleverly composed slow-motion scene where JD beats up two jocks to save Veronica, the damsel in distress, he becomes a hero and they make a romantic connection based solely on that shallow high school sexual desire. Long story short, he’s supposed to be a character audiences sympathize with as they learn about his troubled past, even if in the end he becomes psychotic. Ramirez hits some trouble, though, in delivering his solo “Freeze Your Brain”; he struggles to convey the anguish and trauma that come with having a broken family.
These hurdles don’t stop with a book unable to give JD the narrative development needed to produce a convincing depiction of the effect one’s environment and upbringing can play on mental health. The script does, however, balance Veronica well in the sense that she strays from the personality tropes of the other characters to accentuate her blank identity and search for purpose.
The mocking tone of “Heathers” switches to full blast when it engages itself with a discourse about society’s interaction with suicide. After JD kills three people with Veronica as a witness, she writes fake suicide letters that captivate the school’s attention. In a scene where Veronica’s mother is hosting a safe space talk at school, she squeals enthusiastically, “Whether to kill yourself or not is the best question teenagers can ask themselves!” Throughout the musical, dark concepts are embellished with buoyancy, creating an ambivalent message that calls upon audiences to think about these issues with added perspective.
In one way, it could be detrimental to “Heathers” for it to contain a copious amount of ideas bouncing around in each scene, but this strategy complements the chaotic nature it is trying to accomplish. The mixture of music genres exemplifies these drastic tonal shifts, allowing the musical to swap energies and attitudes as it addresses each topic in a unique fashion, commanding a wider scope of conversation.
With colorful costume designs by Margo Redfern and overwhelmingly aggressive dance choreography, the bright songs about serious topics intentionally incite an unnerving feeling within the audience. It is in this juxtaposition of cheerful and cynical ambiences that “Heathers” shines the most. Similar to putting a fire out, “Heathers” communicates its messages by trying to smother social problems with optimism, but the play ironically leaves a billowing cloud of smoke, forcing audiences to choke and question whether the fire has truly been extinguished.