Tia Karaplis as Heather Duke, from left, Kayla Heichel as Heather Chandler and Amy Kohmescher as Heather McNamara. PHOTO | Patrick R. Murphy/PRM Digital Productions

‘Heathers: The Musical,’ Beck Center for the Art’s black farce, slays audiences

By Bob Abelman

With its regional premiere production of “Heathers: The Musical,” the Studio Theater in the rear of the Beck Center for the Arts has firmly established itself as a safe haven and the go-to performance space for dark, delightfully deranged musicals.

Its reputation was built on past performances of the slightly askew rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the bizarre operatic rendition of the syndicated trash talk show “Jerry Springer,” and the splendidly sordid musical versions of the films “Evil Dead” and “Reefer Madness.”

But now, with this adaptation of the iconic 1989 cult comedy classic “Heathers,” audiences should forever expect irony, an adrenaline rush and a splash zone when entering the intimate arena. And be thoroughly entertained by the time they leave.

The film, “Heathers,” with its cynical worldview, vicious dark streak and snappy dialogue, wasn’t just a precursor to “Clueless” and “Mean Girls.” It offered a heavy dose of teenage angst with a body count and became one of the most scathing indictments and engaging explorations of high school populism ever produced.

Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s musical adaptation, which played briefly off-Broadway in 2014, is mostly true to its source material.

Smart girl outcast Veronica Sawyer (Madeline Krucek) is accepted into the inner circle of popular girls known as the Heathers (Kayla Heichel as Heather Chandler, Amy Kohmescher as Heather McNamara, and Tia Karaplis as Heather Duke) because of her forgery skills and high cheekbones. But with this rise in social status comes a sadistic cruelty and cultish groupthink that Veronica can’t accept. She defects once she hooks up with the new kid in school — the moody bad boy J.D. (Shane Lonergan) — and becomes complicit in his homicidal leveling of the social playing field.

Key to deriving pleasure from a show like this — which deals so sardonically with school bullying, date rape, teen suicide, campus shootings and bomb threats — is to give into its satirical world, buy into the cynicism of its characters and ignore that part of your brain that is shouting loudly: “This is so very wrong on so many levels.”

See the anthropological dissection of high school cliques amid the grossly stereotypical depictions of characters named Beleaguered Geek (Zach Landes), Preppy Stud (Greg Good), Hipster Dork (Joe Virgo), New Wave Party Girl (DeLee Cooper), Stoner Chick (Kacey Faix) and Young Republicanette (Gabi Shook). And take pleasure in the remarkable harmonies they generate in every ensemble number, of which there are many.

Accept the subversive and profane language, and while doing so, embrace the hard-rocking music these crazy kids seem to love, magnificently performed by a seven-piece off-stage band under Larry Goodpaster’s baton; it effectively captures the satirical tone of the film.

And take solace in the sensational performances turned in every actor.

Though less edgy than their cinematic counterparts Christian Slater and Winona Ryder, Lonergan as J.D. is a very sympathetic psychopath and the silver-throated Krucek is an intriguing Veronica. Many of her self-reflective monologues in the film have been turned into songs here, and Krucek and Lonergan’s duets — particularly “Seventeen” and “Our Love is God” — are breathtaking.

As the inconsequential and interchangeable adults, Matthew Wright, Amiee Collier and Paul Floriano are brilliant. And their songs — the hysterical “My Dead Gay Son” sung by two dads, and the gospel-inspired “Shine a Light,” sung by hippie teacher Ms. Fleming — are among the show’s best.

Nearly stealing the show is the outrageously profane “Blue,” which the remarkable Riley Ewing and Jonathan Walker White perform in Act I as jocks Ram and Kurt, and “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” which the wonderful Molly Millsaps sings in Act II as hapless victim Martha Dunnstock.

Heichel, Kohmescher and Karaplis as the Heathers who cause most of the angst that drives this musical, are triple-threat performers and absolutely perfect in these roles. Their initial entrance on a carpet of dry ice through a dramatic parting of the scenery while the company serenades them with the anthem “Beautiful” couldn’t have been better conceived or executed.

In fact, Beck Center’s design team under Scott Spence’s creative vision and superb direction makes it easy for audiences to suspend reflection on the serious subject matter and simply enjoy themselves.

Eye-catching, character-defining choreography and costuming designed by Martín Céspedes and Aimee Kluiber, respectively, conspire to help drown out that shouting, disapproving part of your brain by constantly stimulating the endorphin-producing part.

The scenery that surrounds the performance space consists of layer upon layer of brightly colored school lockers designed and lit by Trad A Burns, so that the stage resembles an old “Betty and Veronica” comic book. This offsets all that is dark and disturbing in this play, which adds yet another layer of irony to the clever storytelling.

All that’s missing in this production is the splash zone. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Heathers: The Musical”

WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood

WHEN: Through July 2

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31. Call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 5, 2016.

Lead image: Tia Karaplis as Heather Duke, from left, Kayla Heichel as Heather Chandler and Amy Kohmescher as Heather McNamara. PHOTO | Patrick R. Murphy/PRM Digital Productions