If as many people see “Heathers: The Musical” as auditioned for it, the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square may look like Walmart on Black Friday.
And “black” is an appropriate association for this dark comedy, a hit movie from 1989 that Kevin Murphy (“Desperate Housewives”), Laurence O’Keefe (“Bat Boy,” “Legally Blonde”) and Andy Fickman (“Reefer Madness,” “She’s the Man”) later turned into an off-Broadway musical.
Just how black?
Veronica – the outcast played by Winona Ryder in the movie and by 21-year-old KC Roberge in Queen City Theatre’s musical here – writes: “Dear Diary: My teen-angst BS (except she spells it out) now has a body count.”
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In “Heathers,” the outsiders get revenge on the bullies – by killing them.
Veronica’s partner in crime, J.D. (Christian Slater in the movie and Matt Carlson, 21, in the play), says: “People will look at the ashes of Westerberg (High School) and say, ‘Now there’s a school that self-destructed, not because society didn’t care, but because the school was society.’ Now that’s deep.”
This is a musical about high school, but it’s no “High School Musical.”
Director Glenn T. Griffin has told his young cast, which includes seven teenagers, that even after high school graduation, high school feelings never go away entirely. Bullies don’t always outgrow their bullying; not everyone gets over the need to fit in. “There’s a high school hierarchy,” Griffin said. “And even if you’re popular, it’s easy to get pushed off your pedestal.”
There’s a pecking order after high school, too. “This world is hard on outsiders,” Griffin said. “We fear those who are different.”
The director feels protective of his young cast and asked their parents to sign a waiver indicating they were OK with the subject matter. “I keep wondering: ‘Is this too much?’ ” he said. “But we’re being truthful, not crass.”
“Heathers” is as poignant and painful as high school. Much of that pain is embodied in the character Martha Dunnstock, who’s ridiculed because of her weight. Allison Andrews, the 23-year-old actress playing her, is especially powerful in her vulnerability, Griffin said. “She has one of the best songs in the show,” he said, referring to “Kindergarten Boyfriend.”
Queen City Theatre Company typically has 40 to 50 people try out for a big musical. Founders Kristian Wedolowski (who has producing duties for “Heathers”) and Griffin report that 149 people auditioned for just 17 slots in “Heathers.”
They weren’t aware the old movie had found new fans. Griffin thinks it’s the “Netflix effect.” Teens watch something more recent with similar themes, then “Heathers” is recommended to them. He laughs that “Heathers” can now be considered “classic.”
They were also happily surprised to find such talent in the under-18 set. “We’ve been bowled over by how quickly they’ve gotten the dance numbers,” Griffin said. “But they’re also total professionals.”
The adults in the show are played by two actors probably well-known to local theater lovers: Alyson Lowe and Steve Martin. Nathan Crabtree of Hickory joins them.
Despite the blood that’s spilled, Griffin promises a show that “pulls your heartstrings.”
“There’s a lot of heart and humor in this,” he said. “And the music (which includes a live band under the direction of Mike Wilkins) will make you want to buy the soundtrack.”
The score includes hard-rocking numbers – with humor – like “Dead Girl Walking.” “Blue” is rife with innuendo, but Wilkins and Griffin have tamped down the sex by making it a boy-band ditty.
Griffin gets goosebumps, he said, when the Heathers make their entrance into the school cafeteria. All the students pay homage to the triumvirate by bowing down to them and singing “Give us something to live for.”
Not everyone in “Heathers” survives high school. Literally. But for anyone who’s ever felt like an outcast, it may be strangely satisfying to see the villains get their comically violent comeuppance.
When: May 5-14.
Where: Duke Energy Theatre at Spirit Square.
Tickets: About $30; student and senior discounts available. Parents should be cautioned: Themes of teen sex and violence are found throughout the play. (But QCTC’s Kristian Wedolowski says kids have probably already seen the movie on Netflix.)
Details: queencitytheatre.com or 704-372-1000.