Review: Heathers, The Musical – Rising Arts Productions. Performed at the Phoenix Theatre, Coniston (NSW)

Book, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy. Based on the film written by Daniel Waters. Direction by Jarrod Riesinger and Bradley Ward, Musical Direction by Adele Masters, Choreography by Monique Barrios.

There are many cult movies in the world, Fight Club, The Room, A Clockwork Orange and Pulp Fiction to name a few. There are also many cult musicals, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Be More Chill and Little Shop of Horrors. Then, there are some that transcend the boundaries of cult followers of both genres, Heathers being today’s example.
Born in that glorious period of the 1980’s, the original film starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. Almost twenty years later, the musical version of the cult film hit the Broadway stage in 2010. From there it exploded. The show itself was recently re-staged at Andrew Loyd Webber’s West End theatre, The Other Palace, to sold out audiences. Now, it makes its Illawarra Theatre debut by the newly formed Rising Arts Productions at the small, intimate Phoenix Theatre to (yet again) sold out audiences.

The musical climate today seems to be overloaded with high school based musicals, Dear Evan Hansen, Be More Chill, Mean Girls, Bring It On. Most of these shows deal with the hardships and struggles that teenagers find themselves in, especially in our modern world. Heathers takes the darker aspects of the high school experience and amps it up to eleven. This is no tragic, emotionally hard hitting, blow your nose constantly show like the Tony Award winning Dear Evan Hansen. Nor is it a cheesy one-liner, social commentary, “You go Glen Coco”, forgettable song show like Mean Girls (even though it has an almost identical plot). No, Heathers deals with the hard-hitting issues of teenage suicide, depression, bullying, rape, peer pressure and parental insecurities to the backing of a rock score. It’s dark humour at its finest and its trigger warnings run amok.

Heathers, the Musical follows the story of Veronica Sawyer (Hannah Garbo), a senior at the fictional Westerberg High. It’s your typical movie musical high school, filled with jocks, nerds, under the hand drug dealers, cheerleaders and of course the Heathers (played by Tylah Heany, Molly Stewart and Zoe Rose), Westerberg’s it-girl, ‘Queen Bees’. They are cruel, calculative and mock and bully the school into bowing down to their every whim. After Veronica uses her skills as a forger to get the Heathers out of detention, she soon finds herself the latest addition to the exclusive club. However, Veronica soon finds out being a Heather is not as easy as it looks. Along the way she falls for the mysterious Jason Dean (Alex Perritt) or JD for short, think John Bender from The Breakfast Club. When an innocent form of payback in the shape of a toxic drink mix-up leads to the death of lead Heather, Heather Chandler, JD convinces Veronica to stage Heather’s suicide. The results are so unexpectedly successful that soon the two are exhilarated with their newfound power and resolve to rid Westerberg of the cruelty and the popular elite at their school.

Directors Jarrod Riesinger and Bradley Ward have clearly thrown all they had at this production. This was, quite honestly, the most technically elaborate and innovative set I’ve seen staged at Coniston’s Phoenix Theatre. Involving pyrotechnics, sliding screens, confetti cannons and rolling banners, the co-directors go for broke with their first venture into the musical theatre world. For the most part, it all works smoothly and in such an intimate space I took the moment to appreciate their boldness in wanting this Illawarra premiere to not be seen as merely an amateur production.
To be honest, I didn’t find all their directorial choices to be the most effective and at times I felt that they could have dialled back on trying to make the production too flashy by throwing cool toys into it. For instance, one pyrotechnics was impressively utilised, the second (which came at a crucial climax of the story) left much less of an impact.
In saying this, there were elements that worked impressively well. The use of blood capsules added impressive shock and tension into key scenes, tear-away clothing added utter hilarity to reflect the number in which it was used and the sliding doors effectively revealed and hid characters – even if the stage hands literal hands could constantly be seen trying to reconnect them when closing.
I would be extremely keen to see their next musical production, purely just based on the intrigue of seeing their learning curve. Seeing how they sit down as a production team and seeing what worked and what didn’t and then utilising this in their next venture could see this new company go from strength to strength.

The choreography by Monique Barrios was effectively staged in the intimate space. Barrios clearly knew which numbers needed the flashy fast-paced choreography and turned it up in these numbers. Others felt plain and simple, a choice probably used to not overshadow the lyrics or the story that was being told. The orchestra, led by Adele Masters, complemented the scenes and showed clear range in the difficult rock score of the show. At times it sounded like they fell a few notes flat during the climax of some songs, other times they blasted through the speakers and almost had the audience on their feet. Masters direction with the harmonies showed immensely, particularly in the Heathers’ number Candy Store.
Corey Potter and Jarrod Riesinger’s lighting design was at times effectively plotted to accentuate the stage and you could tell that the attempts were made to use the colours of the Heathers (Red, Green, Yellow, Blue) during their key scenes, a nice nod to the 80’s film. Although a few cues were at times delayed or left the characters in darkness, particularly at the front of the stage.
If there was one thing I thought didn’t work at all, it was the sound design. The sound effects were overly amateur and were not sourced effectively, at times sounding cartoonish rather than effective and took me out of the show, rather than keeping me involved.

This was, quite honestly, the most technically elaborate and innovative set I’ve seen staged at Coniston’s Phoenix Theatre.

As Veronica Sawyer, Hannah Garbo belted her heart out in all of her numbers and revelled in playing such a complicated character. Clearly a gifted singer, her vocal range was showcased from start to finish and her characterisation of Veronica during her sweet and innocent phase was her strongest portrayal of the character. Her chemistry with JD was palpable and believable, something that most in amateur theatre struggle to create. The only note I could make would have been for her not rely on her mic during Veronica’s dialogue over music as her glorious lines were sometimes lost. However, when it came to her singing, this wasn’t the case and rightly so because it would have been a shame to not hear the lyrics of O’Keefe and Murphy so well sung.
As Veronica’s partner-in-crime, Jason “JD” Dean, Alex Perritt was the perfect portrayal of the tortured soul. In what could have been a one-dimensional role, Perritt exuded that 80’s bad boy charisma and then layered it with something much darker. Perritt owned his presence on stage and brought elements to JD’s character that allowed him to move from being the archetypal high school villain to a character for whom you felt sympathy for instead.

Now to the Heathers, and they were indeed, so very! Stylised by a particular colour that symbolically represented their characters (Red for power, yellow for friendship, green for envy) they worked well together, as well as during their own key moments.
Tylah Heany as Heather Chandler (Red) was the stereotypical mean girl, she played a bitch extremely well. At times she felt more Regina George than anything and her character was never allowed to become anything more than the stereotype. Belting with an impressive singing voice, she suited Chandler and kept her consistency throughout.
Molly Stewart’s Heather McNamara (Yellow) was something else entirely. In what could have been the simple blond, “dumb cheerleader” role, Stewart took McNamara and epitomised what it means to take a solo moment and explode it. Her song Lifeboat stood out as a hard-hitting character portrayal that added immense depth and detail to her character. The believable tragic element to her character suddenly burst through that underlying layer and was thrown at the audience. An absolute star in the making, Stewart’s name is one to keep an eye on.
Zoe Rose’s Heather Duke (Green) had me feeling green with envy. To have the opportunity to play such a role must have been an absolute gift for her. Rose showcased all her talents without breaking a sweat. Her dancing ability was en pointe, her singing and harmonies were never out of tune and her key character traits were played with such strength and ferocity. You knew she was a real snarky character but you never felt anger or hate over it due to the elements she brought to Duke as someone who just had the wrong role model. What I particularly liked was that you could see life beyond her character at the end of the show. A trait that is quite hard to accomplish.

The rest of the shows supporting characters included Zac Chadwick and Jacob Fleming as the typical jocks Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney. Their bromance was almost as palpable as Veronica and JD’s and it was clear that the two were loving every single minute of their disgusting toxic masculinity that they vomited across the stage. Their song Blue had the audience in stitches.
Emma Tobin’s characterisation of Martha Dunnstock was aptly portrayed with an innocent sincerity and integrity that won over the affections of the audience.
Molly Moyes, Bradley Ward and Dylan Horvat played multiple parental figures and teachers throughout the show and each got to present some of the best numbers in the show. Particuarly Ward and Horvat as they opened act two with My Dead Gay Son, and may I just say props to them for going where they did, I hope they got to keep their costumes after the show.

The rest of the ensemble worked effectively in their contribution to the show and each were allowed to present their own type of character, helping them to breath life into the ensemble role and as such, present the authenticity of the fictitious school that we were shown. Whether it was Flynn Piper’s preppy stud, Kezia Killin’s stoner chick, Ella Perusco’s pink princess or Kaylee Ashton’s artsy tomboy, each of them got to chew on something that could have otherwise been bland.

In its entirety, Rising Arts Productions Illawarra Premiere of Heathers was striving to reach the heights of the Illawarra theatre scene and make their mark with this cult following show. Selling out all their shows was a feat in itself and if they attack each of their productions with the all out, no holds back attitude that this one was giving, then I have no doubt they could see their company take off. In my opinion, their next focus would be to strip back the flashiness and build on their foundations of blending the integrity of the performance with the technical aspects of staging one.

Rising Arts Productions also partnered with Headspace Wollongong (a free youth health service for young people aged 12-25) to present Heathers. Information for anyone in need of support or someone to simply reach out to can be found at the bottom of this review.

Stin’s Final Thought: Sometimes, life feels like one big version of high school. In some cities, it’s easy to hear news spread really quickly, so when you hear theatre managers putting down audience members it makes it really hard to want to support their shows. But then again that’s just my opinion.

Heathers was playing at The Phoenix Theatre, Coniston. All information on Rising Arts Productions can be found in the link below.

Rising Arts Productions

Headspace Wollongong

Zoe Rose, Tylah Heany and Molly Stewart (respectively) as the Heathers
The cast of Heathers, Illawarra, 2019

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