THRILLING, CHILL­ING

Sen­sa­tional ‘ Heathers’ all too close to re­al­ity

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINMENT - HEDY WEISS Fol­low HedyWeiss on Twit­ter: @HedyWeis­sCritic Email: hweiss@sun­times.com

With­out ques­tion, Kokandy Pro­duc­tions, Chicago’s small but might­ily im­pres­sive mu­si­cal the­ater com­pany, scored a coup sim­ply by get­ting the rights to “Heathers: The Mu­si­cal,” the 2004 off- Broad­way hit based on the 1988 “cult clas­sic” film star­ring Wi­nona Ry­der and Chris­tian Slater.

In ad­di­tion, Kokandy’s Chicago pre­miere of the show, now at The­ater Wit— where it has been su­perbly helmed by di­rec­tor James Beaudry, mu­sic di­rec­tor Kory Daniel­son and chore­og­ra­pher Sawyer Smith and fea­tures a cast of 18 supremely tal­ented ac­tors — could not be bet­ter.

But there also is some­thing pro­foundly chill­ing about the show, with its book, lyrics and ex­u­ber­ant rock score by Kevin Mur­phy and Lau­rence O’Keefe, based on the screen­play by Daniel Wa­ters.

This story of “high school” as a syn­onym for “hell”— a tale dubbed a “black com­edy” back in 1988— now seems eerily pre­scient. Hov­er­ing over it in far too many ways is the pitch- black shadow of the 1999 Columbine High School mas­sacre in which two se­nior boys, us­ing guns as well as bombs, mur­dered 12 stu­dents and one teacher, in­jured more than 20 oth­ers and fi­nally com­mit­ted sui­cide. And it is now im­pos­si­ble to watch this mu­si­cal with­out see­ing the char­ac­ter of Ja­son “J. D. ” Dean, “the bad- ass Baude­laire” in his black trench­coat, as a pro­to­type for the real- life hor­rors per­pe­trated by Eric Har­ris and Dy­lan Kle­bold and the many other school shoot­ers of re­cent years.

“Heathers” is set in the fic­tional town of Sher­wood, Ohio, where the com­mand­ing harpies of Wester­burg High are three wealthy, beau­ti­ful and know­ingly mean girls who ter­ror­ize their fel­low stu­dents. The trio, who share the same given name, in­clude Heather Chandler ( Jac­que­lyne Jones as a gen­uine vi­rago and leader of the pack), Heather Duke ( a per­fectly snarky Ha­ley Jane Schafer as the con­niv­ing one) and Heather McNa­mara ( Rochelle Ther­rien, who turned in such a mem­o­rable per­for­mance in Grif­fin’s “Lon­don Wall” a bit ear­lier this sea­son and here proves she can sing up a storm, too, as the pe­tite fol­lower).

Tired of be­ing an out­sider and hun­gry to join the Heathers’ ranks just to make it through her se­nior year is Veron­ica ( an ideally am­biva­lent Court­ney Mack, whose ter­rific voice is matched with for­mi­da­ble act­ing skills). A su­per- smart and es­sen­tially de­cent work­ing­class girl, she loathes the Heathers yet makes some­thing of a deal with this trio of devils in or­der to be part of their power group. She also guiltily dumps her life­long best friend, Martha ( Ter­essa LaGamba, who stops the show with “Kinder­garten Boyfriend”), the over­weight girl who is the tar­get of per­ni­cious bul­ly­ing and sex­ual sham­ing even in this era well be­fore the ad­vent of so­cial me­dia.

At the same time, Ve- ron­ica be­gins an in­tense re­la­tion­ship with “J. D.” ( the reedy, charis­matic Chris Ballou, who per­fectly cap­tures his char­ac­ter’s brood­ing vi­o­lence). This hand­some, lit­er­ate new ar­rival at school — who has a his­tory as an out­sider, hav­ing moved count­less times in his life be­cause of his father’s work as a de­mo­li­tions ex­pert— is wholly un­like the school’s pop­u­lar but mo­ronic jocks ( played by Den­zel Tsop­nang and Gar­rett Lutz).

What Veron­ica ( who pos­sesses her own dark im­pulses) doesn’t re­al­ize, un­til it is far too late, is that “J. D.” is not just charis­matic, but psy­cho­pathic. And it takes an event of po­ten­tially mas­sive cat­a­strophic scale for her to fi­nally act and re­al­ize she has been drawn into the same cir­cle of hate pro­mul­gated by the Heathers that she so loathed at the start.

The show’s score has for­mi­da­ble drive, pas­sion and va­ri­ety. And the off­stage band— led by key­boardist Char­lotte Ri­vard- Hoster, with Kyle McCul­lough on gui­tar, Zach Lentino on bass and Isaac Steven­son on per­cus­sion— is a true pow­er­house that ideally com­ple­ments the clar­ion voices of the cast.

One fi­nal note: While this show is sure to be a hit with the teen au­di­ence ( the open­ing night crowd looked like a gath­er­ing of lat­ter- day Heathers), it is def­i­nitely not for younger kids. It goes far be­yond the Brat Pack sto­ries and even “Car­rie,” with more “truthi­ness” than any­one in this coun­try seems to want to deal with th­ese days.

| EMILY SCHWARTZ PHOTO

Chris Ballou plays “J. D.” and Court­ney Mack is Veron­ica in Kokandy Pro­duc­tions’ “Heathers: The Mu­si­cal.”

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