When Slow Burn Theatre’s artistic director Patrick Fitzwater first hit upon the idea of a production of Heathers the Musical, he probably imagined that the black comedy would bring a welcome if occasionally crude respite from the cultural lethargy of a South Florida summer. Instead, in the wake of the most deadly mass shooting in U.S. history, just up the road in Orlando, his flawless production offers something else, maybe something more lasting and important: a defiant reminder of how the arts can bring us together, even at the worst of times.
Discussing Heathers the Musical in such terms sounds a bit grandiose, but viewing the play through any other prism right now is just about impossible. Based on the 1988 film written by Daniel Waters — which made stars of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater and ushered in pithy phrases about damage, corn nuts and chainsaws — the play has a bigger heart than the film that inspired it, offering a few genuinely moving moments amid its ironic, over-the-top view of high school. Primarily, though, it’s a dark satire, its targets the bullies and creeps who wield their power cruelly as well as our American preoccupation with violence to solve our problems. At times the show, which runs through June 26 at the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, is hard to watch in light of recent events. But maybe that means we ought to watch it.
The story sticks fairly close to that of the movie: Teenage Veronica (the terrific Abby Perkins) stumbles her way into the top clique of Westerberg High, the fashion-forward Heathers (Leah Sessa, Sunny Gay and Cristina Flores, moving in tandem like the predators they are). They attack the weak, like Veronica’s childhood friend Martha (Stephanie Trull). Veronica doesn’t like the pranks at Martha’s expense, but she doesn’t want to be a victim, either.
Then she meets bad boy J.D. (Bruno Faria), who offers an attractive alternative to the Heathers’ brand of designer sadism. But his idea of fighting the establishment involves murder, and Veronica’s not a fan of that, either.
The production is a sumptious, candy-colored visual feast, with scenic designer Sean McClelland and lighting designer Becky Montero collaborating to create a garish, technicolor teenage hell. Costume designer Rick Peña shows us all we need to know about the characters via their uniforms, from the Heathers’ bright, tailored jackets and matching knee socks to Martha’s rainbow-and-unicorn sweatshirt, which marks her immediately as vulnerable.
The visual confection of the stage counteracts the bite of the script, much of which is taken directly from the film. The songs, engagingly choreographed by Fitzwater, include such notable numbers as Candy Store (in which the haughty Heathers lay out their dominance) and Dead Girl Walking (in which a frazzled Veronica seeks solace in J.D.’s bedroom after a fallout with the Heathers). Which leads us to the tough part: Anyone who knows the movie remembers its catch phrases, and so the song My Dead Gay Son should not come as a shock. Yet it lands hard, with a weight it was never designed to carry. That the cast is able to turn the number into a rainbow-flag waving demand for tolerance is only a little short of a miracle.
Still, the show moves smoothly through its raunchy parts (one song about sexual frustration is entitled Blue, and yes, for the very reasons you think). The supremely talented (and all local) cast includes standouts Domenic Servidio as dumb jock Kurt Kelly, who displays a wonderful gift for physical comedy, and Trull as plaintive Martha, who unleashes a startling, impassioned version of Kindergarten Boyfriend that is one of the show’s highlights.
Producing thought-provoking work has become the norm for Slow Burn (witness its last two productions, Violet and Spring Awakening). Perhaps Heathers the Musical wasn’t originally meant as food for thought, but circumstances have thrust it into that spot. When tragedy happens, we can let it tear us apart or bind us together. Fitzwater and his cast and crew argue for the latter, demanding our right to laugh and think and applaud and be who we have to be.
If You Go
What: ‘Heathers the Musical’ by Lawrence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, based on the film written by Daniel Waters
Where: Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
When: Through June 26; Thursday-Saturday 7:30 p.m.; Sunday 2 p.m.
Tickets: $45; www.browardcenter.org