High school angst has been examined by a number of stage musicals, but none are as dark as “Heathers: The Musical,” the 2014 off-Broadway cult hit based on a 1988 cult film starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. Frothier shows such as “Legally Blonde” and “Grease” have achieved greater worldwide success, but “Heathers”—as a product of the post-Columbine world—treads where few musicals have gone before, blowing the lid off satire and teetering toward bad taste.
YA4Ever, a local troupe led by alumni of the Young Artists Ensemble, is presenting an edgy, well-performed production of “Heathers” that’s being enthusiastically received by predominantly youthful audiences at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks.
“Heathers” is set in the late ’80s and focuses on the comeuppance of three leaders of a female clique at Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio. The girls, whose first names are all Heather, are virtually interchangeable, but as the school’s reigning gang, they are a three-headed blonde monster that terrorizes anyone who doesn’t meet their precise qualifications of membership.
A new girl, Veronica (Carly Jean Paul), aspires to join, but quickly develops a distaste for their methods and quits. “I’m resigning from the lip gloss Gestapo,” she says.
The Heathers’ stock-in-trade is merciless humiliation, and woe to anyone who becomes the target of their fury. One such victim is the overweight, unpopular Martha Dunnstock (the always superb Francesca Barletta), the play’s only sympathetic figure. As Veronica tells the audience, Martha “has a huge heart, but around here, it’s not enough.”
When Veronica falls for trench-coated vigilante J.D. (a glowering Jared Price), the tables begin to turn on the Heathers, resulting in a cartoonish but disturbing series of tragedies, giving new meaning to the line, “My date for the pep rally blew me off.”
Karlee Squires, Shayde Bridges and Kate Fruehling play the three Heathers with a hand-on-hip insouciance about the ignominy they heap on their victims. Paul carries the role of Veronica well, with a feisty innocence and a honeyed singing voice and is believable in her almost desperate adoration of J.D.
Beneath the dark story line lies a sobering view of high school as a prison, with the distant reality of graduation serving as its remote parole. How one survives until that day depends on how you are able to fit into the school’s societal hierarchy. One of the more disquieting lines in the show is when Veronica asks Heather McNamara (Fruehling), “If everybody jumped off a bridge, young lady, would you?” “Probably,” Heather answers meekly.
Director Timothy Reese presents the high school-as-prison concept with a bleak, foreboding thrust stage design (constructed by Scott Chew), heightened by a shadowy chain-link fence that serves as a ghostly barrier between the school and reality.
The story’s accelerating rollercoaster ride toward annihilation is tempered by composers Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s uncharacteristically upbeat songs, which have a gospel-like enthusiasm about them. (Another O’Keefe score, “Legally Blonde,” is a sunnier show that also examines the illusions of popularity.)
The ensemble features impressive performances by Tal Toker and Jack Powell as two debauched football jocks who make Beavis and Butt-Head look like honor students, and William Carmichael and Ryan Deremer as their equally crude fathers, who sing one of the many outrageously shocking songs in the show, “My Dead Gay Son.”
Music director Tyler Stouffer leads a small, pounding rock band (tone down the drums, guys) while Sarah Fanella is credited for the pep rally-like choreography and Jenna Friedman for the costumes. “Heathers” may not be to everyone’s taste, but for those who like to walk the wild side of musicals, this one will surely push your envelope.
“Heathers: The Musical” runs through Sun., Jan. 14 at Hillcrest Center for the Arts, 403 W. Hillcrest Dr., Thousand Oaks. Due to language, violence and disturbing themes, it is not recommended for pre-teens. For tickets, call (805) 381-2747 or visit the website hillcrestarts.com.