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‘Heathers: The Musical’ unravels layers of deep teen issues

Chrissie Ford (Veronica Sawyer) and Jeffery Jackson (J D Dean), are the outstanding leads in Playhouse Merced’s production of ‘Heathers:  The Musical.’
Chrissie Ford (Veronica Sawyer) and Jeffery Jackson (J D Dean), are the outstanding leads in Playhouse Merced’s production of ‘Heathers:  The Musical.’

Playhouse Merced’s production of “Heathers:  The Musical”, directed and choreographed by Artistic Director Alyse Neubert, presents the out of control aspect of the dynamics of student relationships at the high school level in an authentic way, leaving the audience with a lot to think about regarding current issues such as teen suicide and school shootings.

The show is a rock musical/dark comedy with music, lyrics and book by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, and is based on the 1988 film of the same name written by Daniel Waters.

It had an Off-Broadway run in 2014 and subsequently an Off-West End run in 2018 and then transferred to the West End in 2018 for a limited engagement.

The heroine of the musical is Veronica Sawyer (Chrissie Ford), a witty outcast whose best friend is Martha Dunnstock (Bailey Vasquez), the target of teenage bullying at Westerburg High School.

Veronica falls in with the three most popular girls at school when they find out she is skilled at forging notes and use her forgeries to get themselves out of detention.

The three girls who are at the top of the students’ social hierarchy are all named Heather:  The leader is Heather Chandler (Nataleigh Hemberry), and her cohorts are Heather McNamara (Madelyn Lara) and Heather Duke (Haley Paulissian), who kowtow to Chandler’s every command.

Through the opening song, “Beautiful,” the audience learns that Veronica cannot tolerate the mean way the high school in-group ostracizes and terrorizes the out-group.  She wishes the cutthroat climate at school perpetrated by the popular girls and the jocks would evaporate and things would return to the normalcy of elementary school days when everyone was friends.

Her aspirations are genuine, but after being made over by the Heathers and becoming part of their inner circle, things go downhill.

She ends up becoming romantically involved with new student J D Dean (Jeffery Jackson), a troubled youth whose father, Big Bud Dean (Brian Bort Zarka) blows up buildings for a living and calls his construction company a “deconstruction” company.

When Veronica and J D team up to stop bullying at Westerburg High, Veronica finds herself in the middle of serial murders, suicide and a bomb threat as J D transforms from a trusted boyfriend to an unhinged stalker before her very eyes.

They sing, “Our Love is God”, a chilling duet that seems to present romantic love as being so powerful as to deny the need for boundaries in human behavior.

Will Veronica go along with J D for the sake of love, or will reason prevail?

Can their relationship be salvaged?

How will the dark mission set in motion play out in the end?

For the answer, it is best to see the musical.

After the show, Neubert praised her talented cast members who sang beautifully and explained that she and Shelly Bort, the Musical Director, worked very hard to make sure the story was not told through too much camp and caricature.

Instead, they strived to present the material, which is about growing up, with a grounded approach.

She said, “We did not ask our actors to be stereotypes. Typically, the adult roles are played very campy with caricatures. That was not what we wanted.”

“So many of the characters in this show are just scared, confused and deeply misled kids looking for acceptance in whatever way they can find it.  Our cast is extremely talented and very hard working, and they also wanted to tell this story in a way that did not glorify violence or bullying or just bad behavior. This show means a lot to young people.”

About the heroine, she said, “Veronica is not the typical heroine. She makes big mistakes. She has poor judgment.  But isn’t that all of us at some point when we are young?”

“J D is a victim too, and we wanted to show the generational pass down of toxicity.  In ways, Veronica too has disassociated parents.  They have no idea about her life.

“Both the leads [Chrissie Ford as Veronica and Jeffery Jackson as J D] were very open to exploring that relationship from an honest standpoint and not merely shock value.  The biggest romantic ballad in the show doesn’t end in a kiss in our portrayal, but a frantic embrace.  We wanted them to show their age in the moment and their vulnerability, to showcase two scared kids really looking for love and acceptance.

“Heathers: The Musical”, which is recommended for mature audiences, runs through October 26 at the theater at 452 W. Main Street in Merced.

For further information, those interested can call the box office at 209-725-8587.

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