ORIGINALLY written as a sharp contrast to the sugar-sweet optimistic teenage comedies of the 1980s, this cynical black comedy that looks at the dark side of American college life, bullying, teenage suicide, sexual assault and school violence, has gathered momentum and a cult following as it has progressed from the written page to film and on to a TV series and this high- octane musical stage version.
Adding a full score to the text has not taken even a slight edge off those disturbing themes seen on screen. But it may have dulled the edge of the black humour a little, making some scenes more realistically threatening – or is it a case of not all the very American comedy travelling intact across the Atlantic ocean. The lyrics of the songs certainly pull no punches tackling these, often-swept-under-the-carpet-subjects, head on. And director Andy Frickman is also in no mood to underplay the physical violence within the story, while at the same time taking every comedy opportunity on offer.
Musically, MD Will Joy on keyboard with five fellow musicians sounded as if they are on speed or some other energy enhancing drug, with one big, enthusiastically Gary Lloyd choreographed number tumbling over the previous offering, on too many occasions ending in a picture frame freeze ending, inviting the audience to applaud. These musical arrangements also meant that in almost every number the vocalist spent most of their time singing in a very narrow musical band towards the top of their range. Not that this bothered Katie Paine, as the publicity-seeking teacher Ms Fleming or Kindley Morton, taking her beautifully sensitive portrait of the bullied overweight Martha right into the heart of Kindergarten Boyfriend.
Nor did it prevent Jenna Innes, as Veronica the new Westerberg High School girl, lighting up the audience in her solos, creating an unusual, but tremendously powerful love bond with Jacob Fowler’s enigmatic JD Dean, or leading the full company in energy-sapping ensemble numbers. The mental violence between Veronica and JD as he produces logical reasons for murdering three people, is jaw-droppingly conveyed by Jenna and Jacob.
As lyrics and dialogue combine, a whole raft of broadly-drawn characters emerge, particularly the three Heathers, bullying social leaders of Westberg High. Verity Thompson is in her element as Heather C their leader, a hip-swinging, arrogant and selfish blonde, with Elise Zavou’s sly waiting-in-the-wings-to-seize-power Heather D and Billie Bowman’s ineffectual Heather McNamara as her willing cohorts. Alex Woodwood and Morgan Jackson are bursting at the seams with teenage sexuality and belief in male dominance, which leads to their black comedic demise, and as their fathers, Conor McFarlane and Jay Bryce, pull out all the stops to drain every drop of comedy out of their vocal eulogy to their sons, My Dead Gay Son.
In the last few scenes, you get the impression that the author is searching for a suitable way to extricate the characters from the moral maze in which he has entangled them. Finally, he settles for a not completely suitable happy-ever-after finish, combined of course with a final big show stopping, audience rousing finale, which the company delivered with ebullient enthusiasm, receiving what they had asked for – a well deserved standing ovation.
Photographs by Pamela Wraith