Gently with a chainsaw

Heathers the Musical at Playhouse South

By Don Hurst

Photo: T.J. Montgomery as J.D. and Jordan Eechaute-Lopez as Veronica Sawyer in Playhouse South’s Heathers the Musical; photos: Don Hurst

Cool girls. Bullies. Teenage love. Suicide. Murder. Explosives. High school can be such a drama fest.

Playhouse South presents Heathers the Musical, based on the hit cult movie from 1988 starring Christian Slater and Winona Ryder. The violence, the profanity, and the bleak portrayal of teenage life shocked movie audiences at the time and proved how passive aggressive and nasty a game of croquet can be. Don’t let the pastel colors and ’80s soundtrack fool you; this story is a dark satire of the predatory nature of high school.

Veronica Sawyer, played by Jordan Eechaute-Lopez, thinks her life is perfect when the Heathers, the most popular and ruthless girls in school, invite her to join their clique. Then the arrival of J.D., played by T.J. Montgomery, the mysterious new boy who might be a serial killer, upends the social order. Veronica risks her popularity by falling for him. When the leader of the Heathers threatens to ruin Veronica’s life, she and J.D. embark on a deadly plan for revenge that threatens the entire student body.

“Veronica just wants to be cool, not be bothered, and maybe have some cute guys hit on her,” Eechaute-Lopez says. “She wants to make it through high school. She goes from loser to popular in like 90 seconds but doesn’t think about the consequences.” As the body count rises, those consequences get more difficult to ignore.

Almost 30 years later, the movie is still gritty and strikes raw nerves, but Heathers the Musical delivers softer punches blunted with camp. The creative team of Kevin Murphy, a writer and producer of Desperate Housewives, and Laurence O’Keefe, a writer for Legally Blonde: The Musical, emphasize the dark humor of the original material. Songs like “My Dead Gay Son” and “Blue,” a ballad about painful erections, play up the camp, but this show is still not for the faint of heart.

The mix of violence and comedy drove Aaron Brewer to direct Playhouse South’s production. “I’m definitely drawn to the weird, off-the-beaten-path type of shows,” Brewer says. “I love how this musical balances campy ’80s fun with more serious and gritty elements from the movie. Some audiences might not be comfortable with the violence, but they shouldn’t take it too seriously. This show is designed to make you laugh.”

Even though the musical is set in a time of big hair, scrunchies, and passing notes, the themes are still relevant today. Not much has changed since 1988. Teenagers can still be cruel to each other. They just have more high tech methods of torture at their disposal.

“The clique culture is still alive today,” Brewer says. “You have the mean, popular girls and the social outcasts looking outside in and wanting what the popular kids have. A lot of people want that and struggle with finding a way to fit in.”

One challenge Brewer faced is that the film version of “Heathers” is still a popular cult classic today. Modern audiences quote such iconic lines as “f–k me gently with a chainsaw” and “what’s your damage?” Brewer had to figure out how to please audiences expecting references to the movie they love while also breaking new ground.

“Once I knew I was directing this show I stayed away from the movie and the musical so that I could keep things more original,” Brewer says.

That dilemma weighs heavily on Montgomery. Slater’s performance in “Heathers” catapulted him to stardom. It’s an unenviable job to try to match that.

“I can’t be a carbon copy of Christian Slater. I’m always working to give J.D. a unique spin while keeping what made him so familiar. Build up that iconic role while keeping him fresh and new,” Montgomery says. He should not worry too much about impersonating the original. After all, even Slater admits his entire performance was him pretending to be Jack Nicholson.

The role carries more challenges than just the inevitable comparisons to the original. J.D. is the villain and love interest. He’s also an emotionally controlling murderer whose rationale for violence actually sounds sane compared to high school politics.

“You hate that you love him,” Montgomery says. “He’s a bad guy without being a bad guy. He’s just standing up for his girl. Veronica is his kryptonite. She can take him to some very dark places.”

J.D. also takes Veronica to some very dark places.

Eechaute-Lopez understands why Veronica would fall for him. “J.D.’s dangerous,” she says. “He’s the mysterious bad boy. Veronica and J.D. are both misfits.” Veronica thinks she can change him, but instead, he changes her. Often we end up hurting the ones we love, sometimes with a croquet mallet.

The lyrics from the Heathers soundtrack sums up what the show is all about underneath the murder and insanity: “We’re all damaged. We’re all frightened. We’re all freaks. But that’s all right. We’ll endure it. We’ll survive it.”

Spoiler alert: Not everyone survives it.

Playhouse South presents Heathers the Musical, Nov. 4, 5, 11, and 12 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 6 and 13 at 2 p.m. at the Clark Haines Theatre, 3750 Far Hills Ave. in Kettering. Ticket prices are $15 for adults and $13 for seniors, military, and students. For more information, please visit PlayhouseSouth.org.

 

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Don Hurst
Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at DonHurst@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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