Cult movie-turned-mu­si­cal doesn’t play safe

Slow Burn The­atre pro­duc­tion of ‘Heathers’ has edge

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - South Broward - - ON STAGE - By Chris­tine Dolen

They are mean girls on steroids. Or maybe not so pretty-in-pink types who wield croquet mal­lets and cru­elty as weapons.

How­ever you de­scribe them, girls like Heather Chan­dler, Heather McNa­mara and Heather Duke — aka the Heathers — may just be the stuff of high school night­mares.

They’re also the power trio at the cen­ter of “Heathers,” a mor­dant 1988 movie com­edy that tran­scended its so-so box of­fice per­for­mance to be­come a cult clas­sic. And they’re sim­i­larly up to no good in “Heathers: The Mu­si­cal,” a show that had a six-month Off-Broad­way run in 2014.

Thanks to its strong score, deeper char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment and a big em­brace by the world of so­cial me­dia, “Heathers: The Mu­si­cal” has gone onto have a solid post-New York life. The lat­est chap­ter hap­pens here, when Slow Burn The­atre opens its pro­duc­tion of the ‘80s-set show this week­end in the Broward Cen­ter’s Amaturo Theater.

The mu­si­cal is the cre­ation of Kevin Mur­phy, a screen­writer and TV pro­ducer who wrote the book and lyrics for the mu­si­cal “Reefer Mad­ness,” and Lau­rence O’Keefe, the com­poser of “Bat Boy: The Mu­si­cal” and (with his wife Nell Ben­jamin) “Legally Blonde: The Mu­si­cal.” Andy Fick­man, the di­rec­tor who worked with Mur­phy on “Reefer Mad­ness,” sug­gested the cre­ative pair­ing for “Heathers: The Mu­si­cal,” but Mur­phy says O’Keefe was ini­tially re­luc­tant.

“Larry turned us down. He didn’t think it would work,” Mur­phy said by phone from Los An­ge­les. “The orig­i­nal movie was very dis­tanc­ing. Any­one who makes a hu­man con­nec­tion gets it knocked out of them. … It took me six months to con­vince Larry.”

Mu­si­cals, Mur­phy notes, are about feel­ings and in­ter­nal mono­logues ex­pressed in song. Dis­tanc­ing doesn’t work. So from the bul­lies to the bul­lied, deeper mo­ti­va­tion was key to mak­ing From left, Cristina Flores, Leah Sessa and Sunny Gay look on as Abby Perkins’ Veron­ica is wooed by Bruno Faria’s J.D. in Slow Burn The­atre’s “Heathers: The Mu­si­cal” at the Broward Cen­ter. “Heathers: The Mu­si­cal” a suc­cess.

“[We had to] get in­side the heads of each of th­ese kids and fig­ure out who they are,” he said.

On its sur­face, “Heathers” presents a typ­i­cal teen so­cial hi­er­ar­chy, this one at the fic­tional Wester­burg High in Ohio.

Heather Chan­dler is the primo mean girl, rul­ing the roost along with year­book com­mit­tee chair Heather Duke and head cheer­leader Heather McNa­mara. Stu­dent Veron­ica Sawyer gets swept into their or­bit, even though the Heathers are ex­ceed­ingly cruel to her over­weight best friend, Martha Dunn­stock, who is also bul­lied by dumb jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly. Veron­ica’s life takes a big turn, though, when she falls for the hand­some new kid in school, the mys­te­ri­ous and brainy mis­fit Ja­son “J.D.” Dean. So far, so typ­i­cal.

What sets “Heathers” — the movie and the mu­si­cal — apart is its deft, thought-pro­vok­ing treat­ment of a host of se­ri­ous sub­jects: bul­ly­ing, cer­tainly, but also teen sui­cide, gun vi­o­lence, sex­ual as- sault, fam­ily dys­func­tion, a bomb plot, even mur­der. Mur­phy calls his mu­si­cal R-rated, and though it’s en­ter­tain­ing, tune­ful and of­ten very funny, it also res­onates on mul­ti­ple lev­els.

Slow Burn artistic di­rec­tor Pa­trick Fitzwa­ter, who’s stag­ing and chore­ograph­ing “Heathers: The Mu­si­cal,” says the show was pitched to him while the com­pany was do­ing “High Fi­delity” two years ago. The li­cens­ing agent at Sa­muel French sent him a “swag bag” with a Trap­per Keeper, Corn Nuts and a red scrunchie, like the one Heather Chan­dler wears. Fitzwa­ter had thought about do­ing “Legally Blonde,” but he and mu­si­cal di­rec­tor Em­manuel Sch­vartz­man fell for the “Heathers” score, and both think the mu­si­cal is bet­ter than the movie.

“I’m a big fan of the com­poser,” Fitzwa­ter says. “The mu­sic is sen­sa­tional.”

Sch­vartz­man, who first heard some of the “Heathers” songs at a Catholic high school where he was teach­ing, says the show’s score “has a lot of edge to it. It doesn’t play it safe. … It’s the heart­beat of what’s hap­pen­ing in th­ese kids’ lives.”

In the Slow Burn pro­duc­tion, Abby Perkins is Veron­ica, Leah Sessa plays Heather Chan­dler and Bruno Faria is J.D.

Perkins watched the “Heathers” movie be­fore she au­di­tioned “and about a mil­lion times since.” She finds it to be a gothic ver­sion of “Pretty in Pink,” and thinks there’s a rea­son that even 21st cen­tury high school kids con­nect with the mu­si­cal so strongly.

“This re­minds me of how high school felt. The stakes for th­ese char­ac­ters are so high, so on edge, so epic. I re­mem­ber if I wore the wrong shirt, I’d get picked on,” Perkins says.

Talk­ing about “Heathers: The Mu­si­cal,” high school mem­o­ries came flood­ing back for Fitzwa­ter, Sch­vartz­man and the ac­tors, all of whom say they found a safe haven in the per­form­ing arts dur­ing those emo­tion­ally fraught years.

“I came here from Brazil and didn’t speak English at first. I had no neck — my chin and my chest con­nected,” says Faria of his younger, heav­ier self. “We moved around a lot. I was al­ways meet­ing new people. When I [got into] theater, it be­came my fam­ily.”

Fitzwa­ter, a tall for­mer ac­tor, was just 4 feet 4 inches tall as a high school se­nior. His fam­ily too had moved a lot, and his high school years were spent in what he calls a “Po­dunk” town.

“I was the same size as the trash cans in the bath­room, so I got thrown into them a lot,” he says.

Like Faria, the Ar­gentina-born Sch­vartz­man started school in South Florida as an out­sider, speak­ing only Span­ish and deal­ing with is­sues like mid­dle school gangs. By high school he was deeply in­volved in mu­sic, playing ev­ery­thing from clas­si­cal to jazz as a pi­anist and per­cus­sion in the march­ing band.

“I felt I was achiev­ing a lot and re­ceiv­ing a lot when I was per­form­ing. I never cared to be the pop­u­lar one. I knew there was noth­ing behind it,” he says.

In “Heathers: The Mu­si­cal,” Sessa says, she’s playing “the queen bitch who rules the school.” Sessa’s high school life wasn’t like that, but she re­mem­bers a par­tic­u­lar kind of dis­com­fort.

“Lunch time was ter­ri­fy­ing. There was al­ways that fear of hav­ing to sit alone. So I’d take my lunch and eat it in the cho­rus room,” she says.

Mur­phy and O’Keefe are work­ing on a ver­sion of their mu­si­cal that’s more PG and high school­friendly, though Slow Burn is do­ing what he calls the “hard R” orig­i­nal.

De­spite the se­ri­ous con­tent wo­ven through­out the show, Sessa em­pha­sizes that “Heathers: The Mu­si­cal” is any­thing but glum.

“It’s re­ally laugh- out-loud funny,” she says.

Then Perkins adds, “I think it’ll make you laugh and cry.”

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