Mean Girls, Primary Colors and Grand Guignol: HEATHERS at Red Branch

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Mean Girls, Primary Colors and Grand Guignol: HEATHERS at Red Branch

Hasani Allen and Vivian Cook

Hasani Allen and Vivian Cook

Posted on August 8, 2016

It is a safe bet that at every institution of secondary education with female students, there are Mean Girls. It is also a safe bet that there isn’t a reader who needs the term defined, because there probably isn’t a reader who hasn’t experienced Mean Girls – or been one of them. And one trait we know the Mean Girls all share is they make people want to kill them.

The phrase has a jocular sound, and it should, because it isn’t meant quite literally. But it’s a fun conceit that someone might mean it quite literally. That conceit drove the 1989 cult classic Heathers, a movie that asked the question what circumstances would actually would lead to someone killing Mean Girls and their male Jock consorts, and came up with an ingenious answer. The killers would be a sensitive girl, sensitive enough not to be immune to the blandishments of the Mean Girl lifestyle but with broader horizons as well, and a hipster loner with a wide psychopathic streak. Winona Ryder andChristian Slater were Veronica and J.D., the original sensitive girl and psychopathic hipster.

With its universal subject, sharp satiric streak, acerbic humor, primary colors production and costume design, and its touch of Grand Guignol, it was a natural to be musical-ized, and that adaptation occurred in 2013 and 2014, when the musical adaptation opened in Los Angeles, and went on to Off-Broadway. Written by Laurence O’Keefe, half of the creative team behind Legally Blonde, and Kevin Murphy, primarily a television composer, it had a limited but very successful Off-Broadway run. It is now available for regional productions, the first of which in our area is being presented by Red Branch Theatre Company in Columbia.

Having seen and greatly enjoyed the New York production, I was looking forward to the regional revival, and Red Branch’s version does not disappoint, but it is rather different. I liked Barrett Wilbert Weed, the original Veronica, but I like Red Branch’s Vivian Cook better, probably because Weed kept on a sardonic grin that sort of showed she was in on the joke, while Cook’s Veronica, for all her sensitivity and insight, sees the irony more steadily than the joke; this Veronica is too deep in the drama to be in any sense above it, which is as it should be. This show works best as a drama and a satire; not as camp, which Weed’s portrayal tended to force the show into.

Hasani Allen is a rather different J.D. from either Christian Slater or Ryan McCartan, who played J.D. in the New York production. He seems both more angry and more love-struck than his predecessors. (When he sings “Our love is God,” as he does repeatedly, it takes on more vulnerability.)

It has been commented, for instance in the director’s notes in the program, that the murderousness of J.D. is an edgy portrayal of the kind of mass killer whose handiwork we have all grown far to accustomed to. (The director phrases it as a “trend of social stratification in schools pushing outcasts so far to the margins that they lash out violently.”) I would not go too far with that approach. Neither in the film nor the musical is J.D.’s murderousness primarily a product of the social stratification of the school; the fallen members of the Mean Girl/Jock combine may have annoyed J.D., but a different explanation of sorts is provided. I’ve always felt that the explanation is dramatically unsatisfactory, though it fits well with the gruesomeness that suffuses the production. I’d prefer to think of J.D. as afflicted with “motiveless malignity,” what Coleridge saw in Iago. Allen’s portrayal has that inscrutable quality at its core.

The three Mean Girls, all named Heather (Tiara Whaley, Megan Bunn, and Geocel Batista), also bring different queen bee styles from their predecessors, but very enjoyably so. The two king Jocks, quarterback Kurt Kelly (Taylor Witt) and Ram Sweeney (Tendo Nsubuga), are pretty much the same, however, as the Jocks in earlier incarnations, which perhaps goes to show that youthful male peckerheadedness varies little across the ages and the subcultures.

I’ve already said that not all the Heathers and not all the Jocks make it out of this show alive. For newbies, I will not reveal how or to which of them the deaths occur. Suffice it to say the deaths are both horrifying and comic, the more so because of the community’s reactions to them. In an era of school grief counseling and talk shows and pop psychology, all things which simply lend themselves to lampoonery, the community’s infallibly wrong embrace of these contemporary phenomena are the funniest things about the show, and drew the biggest laughs on press night.

The developing reaction of Veronica to these deaths, by contrast, give the show its drama. She is in part the author of the deaths, and the forger of documents that have led to the community’s wrongheaded, pop-psych-inflected responses. Her bemused disgust at those responses does not drown out her increasingly mature conscience. She realizes what she must do to restore the moral order. And of course, this being a musical comedy, the moral and social order must be restored. In the final number, the high schoolers sing feelingly about having a harmonious and normal last gasp of childhood, and perhaps, thanks to Veronica, they’ll get it.

A word about the singing and the music. Red Branch has a tradition of casting good singers, and this show was no exception; it also has a tradition of less-than-stellar acoustics and that tradition unfortunately continues too. With ears that are two-thirds of a century old, I was probably affected worse by that shortcoming than were most of the Audience members, but the shortcoming is real. (At the New World Stages in New York, where the show started, every word was clear.) I recommend you give the original cast album a listen before coming in. The songs deserve it. They may not be melodically memorable, for the most part, but they are cleverly written, with an unusually tight fit between the action and the lyrics. There could be several things happening at once in the frequent ensemble pieces, and they are all typically advanced by the songs, with little pieces of the lyrics being parceled out to each subplot. So understanding all that is sung pays big dividends.

Whether you go to such lengths or not, you should make time to take in this show, a perfect summer entertainment, at least for theatergoers with a taste for the grotesque and the funny.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo Credit: Jeri Tidwell Photography

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