Darkly comic musical examines school cliques and adolescent angst
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Darkly comic musical examines school cliques and adolescent angst

Heathers: The Musical. Written by Laurence O'Keefe, Kevin Murphy, based on the screenplay by Daniel Waters. Music and lyrics by O'Keefe and Murphy. Directed by Grant Pegg and Kelly Roberts. Musical director: Matt Webster. Choreographer: Nathan Rutups. Dramatic Productions. Gungahlin Theatre. October 10-27. Tickets $27.50-$54.50. Bookings: (weekdays) 62531454 or stagecenta.com.

Dozens of movies - from mainstream musicals to cult classics - have been adapted into stage musicals with varying levels of artistic and commercial success. But few, if any, of those source films have been as blackly comic as Heathers (1989), the cult movie adapted into a stage musical that made its off-Broadway debut in 2013.

JD (Will Huang) and Veronica (Belle Nicol) in Dramatic Productions' <i>Heathers the Musical</i>.

JD (Will Huang) and Veronica (Belle Nicol) in Dramatic Productions' Heathers the Musical.Credit:Janelle McMenamin

Heathers The Musical is having its Canberra premiere production directed by Grant Pegg and Kelly Roberts and presented by Dramatic Productions. Like the movie, it deals with some serious and still all too relevant themes including teenage suicide, bullying and violence in schools but with a darkly humorous tone.

The Heathers - queen bee Heather Chandler (Charlotte Gearside), Heather Duke (played by Madeleine Betts), and Heather McNamara (Mikayla Brady) - are the most powerful, "popular" and cruel clique at Westerburg High School. They give misfit Veronica Sawyer (Belle Nicol) a makeover and accept her into their group when she reveals her handy skill of forging.

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But Veronica is ambivalent about her new status and is soon drawn to mysterious new student JD (Will Huang) whose aloofness intrigues her.

When Veronica falls out with the Heathers she falls in with JD and they start a relationship. Fearing ostracism, Veronica decides to apologise to the clique in hopes of returning. But JD has other, deadlier ideas and events soon spin out of Veronica's control and into a downward spiral.

Canberra actor and director Grant Pegg says Heathers: the Musical was "top of the list" of the shows he and Kelly Roberts wanted to direct together.

From left, Madeleine Betts (Heather Duke), Charlotte Gearside (Heather Chandler), Mikayla Brady (Heather McNamara) in <i>Heathers the Musical</i>.

From left, Madeleine Betts (Heather Duke), Charlotte Gearside (Heather Chandler), Mikayla Brady (Heather McNamara) in Heathers the Musical.Credit:Janelle McMenamin

They teamed up with Richard Block's company Dramatic Productions to bring the show to the stage. Block will only be producing rather than also directing as he has his previous musicals including Into the Woods.

Pegg says most screen-to-stage adaptations adhere slavishly to the original material rather than carve out their own identity. But he says Heathers: the Musical manages to ring enough changes to make it its own entity while retaining enough of the original's sharp dialogue and story twists to please fans of the movie, sometimes with a tweak. The film's line "I love my dead gay son", for example. is developed into a musical number.

"It's a very, very funny show," Pegg says.

Rather than casting teenagers as the high schoolers as a Sydney production did ("more of a dramatic show"), he and Roberts decided to eschew realism and present a stylised production using actors in their 20s and 30s.

"Heathers is a dark comedy - we thought it was better as a parody," he says.

As for his own adolescent experience., Pegg says he was "a nerd - I actually enjoyed high school".

His school had cliques similar to those in Heathers -including jocks and popular kids -but Pegg was a triplet and says having two brothers around meant none of them were ever bullied.

"There's safety in numbers."

Nicol, 23, in her first show outside school, says she could relate to Veronica's mixed feelings.

"She's sick of the social hierarchy and bullies," Nicol says.

But, she says, Veronica also wants to fit in and be one of the popular kids, so there's a bit of a disconnect there. And when she sees JD become increasingly unhinged, she has to decide what to do.

Nicol says of her high school days, "I felt like I wanted to be cool but I was a bit awkward; I didn't quite fit in."

In the movie <i>Heathers</i> from left: Winona Ryder, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk and Shannon Doherty.

In the movie Heathers from left: Winona Ryder, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk and Shannon Doherty.Credit:New World International

Huang - like Pegg and Roberts - has been involved in many shows over the years. He says,"I had my fair share of teenage angst .. I had a lot of baggage in high school".

He was bullied as a boy - "being different I copped a lot of flak" - and says, "I wouldn't call myself a rebel so much as an outcast."

Looking back, he says, he despised the popular kids and everything he thought they stood for: "I hated them". But he adds, "People tended to mellow out towards the end."

To seek respite during the bad times, he would hang out in the library with fellow video game enthusiasts.

Drawing on some of these memories helped him inhabit JD. The character carries his own particular baggage ("He's got real issues") and Huang says the way this aspect is treated helps make him a more developed character than in the movie: "he's antisocial but because of that there's an allure about him".

For JD, he says, the end justifies the means in reforming the high school social structure but Veronica is not that far gone. However, that is treated more subtly in the musical too, Huang says.

"In the movie he wears his psychosis on his sleeve ... it doesn't manifest itself so soon in the musical."

But Huang says, baggage and all, he's not like JD.

"Does the end justify the means? No!"

Huang says even in school he never entertained extreme thoughts, unlike JD.

"I see the world in a few more shades of grey than he does."

Even so, it can be fun to pretend otherwise and take some vicarious revenge for the damage wrought in the teenage years - for the audience as well as the actors.

Ron Cerabona is an arts reporter for The Canberra Times.

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