Parisa Siddiqui, Contributor
When it comes to teen movies, few have had as lasting an imprint on pop culture as 1988’s black comedy Heathers. The story follows high schooler Veronica as she struggles to break free from the world of a vicious clique of popular girls known as the Heathers. Her enigmatic new boyfriend, JD, convinces her to get revenge on them, but he ends up deceiving Veronica into helping him commit several murders and covering them up as suicides. The film is notable for taking typical high school melodrama and putting a twisted spin on it to convey how damaged society’s values are. Though it never gained box office success during its theatrical release, the film eventually garnered a cult following. Daniel Waters’ original screenplay was adapted to the stage by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy in 2014. The McGill Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society (AUTS) production of Heathers, running from January 19 to January 28 in Moyse Hall, has its roots in the Off-Broadway book. Per the nature of a university-level production, the set design is sparse but quite well crafted, and the costumes are more updated versions of the candy-coloured eighties outfits enshrined in media from the time.
In the AUTS production Mariel White plays Veronica, a clever, razor-tongued 17-year-old who becomes increasingly discontent with her life when her actions as a newly-minted popular girl begin to clash with her morals. White possesses an unwaveringly strong singing voice and sharp comedic timing, and her performance is natural and relaxed. White’s Veronica is more innocent and less flirtatious than her filmic counterpart, which works with the lighter tone of the play. Joe Christie plays JD as more charming and brooding than creepy, which makes it harder to reconcile his temperament with his evil actions. His vocal performances are just as robust as White’s; the pair shine on their numerous duets, most notably on the emotional “Our Love is God” and “Seventeen.”
Caroline Portante plays ringleader Heather Chandler, a role that is arguably a caricature of the stereotypical eighties queen bee, with the haughtiness of a Disney villain. She tosses out acrid barbs with a loud shrillness that provides an effective foil for Veronica’s more relaxed delivery. Interestingly, her singing voice is low and pleasant, particularly in “Candy Store.” Insecure Heather McNamara (Emily Sheeran) and brash Heather Duke (Devin Sunar) round out the clique with layered portrayals and teased ponytails.
But surprisingly it is Ms. Fleming, played by Esmée Cook, who gives possibly the most memorable performance in a show full of them. In a relatively small role, Cook dazzles musically and comedically; she embodies the good-natured yet misguided spirit of the character in a way that makes it seem like she originated the role.
The natural camp of theatre might logically seem compatible with the dated slang and frizzy perms of the original movie. The film, however, deviated from the standard mold of the beloved teen movie due to the dark nature of the subject matter. AUTS’s Heathers relies on the exaggeration of characters in order to integrate the numerous musical numbers into the story, which somewhat suppresses the atrocity of the characters’ actions. The social commentary on suicide, rape, homophobia, and peer pressure is belied by the bouncy musical numbers, and during confrontations, the music cuts into the intensity of the moment. However, there is something to be said for the power of music. The song “Seventeen” brings a new depth to an already emotional scene at the beginning of the second act, in which Veronica pleads with JD to abandon his vengeful ways. “Kindergarten Boyfriend” adds intricacy to one of the smaller characters, Martha Dunnstock (Olivia Woodhouse), that can only be expressed through music.
Ultimately, the AUTS show is well cast and well performed; the surface level problems have their roots in the struggle to adapt a beloved, culturally significant movie to the stage in a way that does not take from the integrity of the story and the characters. The benefits of a stage performance lie in the extended runtime, the rawness of live performances, and the added effects of expository music. AUTS ties all of these elements together into a fast-paced show that honours what made the film a classic, and more importantly, entertains and compels.
Heathers is playing at Moyse Hall from January 26th to the 28th. Tickets are $15 for students and $20 for the general public.