Lawrence Toppman

‘Heathers’: Mockery, murder, music and maybe a moral

The Heathers (Nonye Obichere in green, Ava Smith in yellow and Tessa Belongia in red) explain their way of life to Veronica (KC Roberge, in blue).
The Heathers (Nonye Obichere in green, Ava Smith in yellow and Tessa Belongia in red) explain their way of life to Veronica (KC Roberge, in blue). George Hendricks Photography

The most shocking moment in “Heathers” comes in the opening scene, when high school senior Veronica (KC Roberge) walks a gauntlet of classmates who shout “Punk! Slut! Cripple! Homo! Homo! Homo!”

Unlike the 1988 movie on which this is based – pretty faithfully, at least until an ending that is either tongue-in-cheek or a cop-out – the title characters aren’t the only kids who mock and snub people “below” them. In this school, almost everyone is a potential Heather waiting to blossom, like a flower of evil.

The exceptions are good-hearted Veronica, perennial victim Martha Dunnstock (Allison Andrews) and J.D. (Matt Carlson), a Baudelaire-quoting guy who dresses all in black and is halfway to becoming a full-blown psycho.

Veronica abandons old friend Martha in order to be popular, but the Heathers (Tessa Belongia, Nonya Obichere and Ava Smith) never fully adopt her. They dump her once they realize she doesn’t have the requisite cruelty to belong to their clique. She crawls back to their leader to beg forgiveness, unwittingly bringing a “hangover cure” for which J.D. substituted drain cleaner. The girl’s death leaves Veronica with a ghost who follows her everywhere and leaves J.D. with a new idea: Why not slay all the bullies and vicious people they know?

“We can start and finish wars/We’re what killed the dinosaurs/We’re the asteroid that’s overdue,” he sings in one of the cleverest songs by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy. (The lyrics are almost always witty, the melodies catchy but not memorable.) And Veronica, sexually turned on and lonely, swims along in the wake of this shark.

Director Glenn Griffin and choreographer Tod Kubo emphasize the absurdity of the situations in the Queen City Theatre Company version, from the guidance counselor who wants her students to grieve for local TV cameras to the father who comically discovers belated tolerance in the song “My Dead Gay Son.” When Kubo can, he brings us fist-pumping dance routines that remind us of the artificiality of musical comedy.

Yet the mood can be genuinely poignant in Andrews’ rendition of “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” wryly on target when Roberge muses on her need to fit in, and touching when Carlson sings about life after the death of J.D.’s mother: “Freeze your brain/Shatter your skull/With pain and more pain....”

This story has gone through many permutations since the cult film, which fans found mainly on video. A sequel was discussed and abandoned; multiple TV versions were mooted but unrealized, and the TV Land network has allegedly commissioned a series set in the present day, with grown Veronica facing a different set of Heathers. There was even talk of a board game (!) at one point.

The show resonates with actors, 149 of whom tried out for 17 slots in this production, and audiences: I have never seen Duke Energy Theater so packed on an opening night for QCTC. I used to think that was because audience members had all met Heathers and fantasized about revenge. Now I wonder: Maybe they realize they could be Heathers, given the proper circumstances, and want to see the dark sides of their own natures blown away.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Heathers’

When: Through May 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Also 3 p.m. May 14.

Where: Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.

Tickets: $29-$31.

Running time: 135 minutes with one intermission.

Details: queencitytheatre.com or 704-372-1000.

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