Heathers: The Musical, in its first Kansas City production, brings together many of the best young musical-theater actors in town. There’s so much talent onstage at the Unicorn Theatre that this show could have been a home run.
The fact that it isn’t reflects an uncertain tone and a manic insistence from co-directors Cynthia Levin and Missy Koonce that the show’s deep vein of ironic humor is funnier than it is. At times I felt like someone was kicking me in the shins and shouting: “Isn’t this hilarious?”
Even so, the actors manage to carry the day. Most of them are clearly having fun while conveying the pure joy of performing edgy material.
This show, which enjoyed an almost five-month run off-Broadway in 2014, is on the surface a black comedy that deals in high-school cliques and teenage sexuality. But the material is tricky. It may at first glance look like a silly romp taking easy broadsides at the hell of adolescence, but this adaptation of an 80s cult film is fundamentally serious.
Heathers the movie was a flop in its initial theatrical release back in 1988. But, as happens so often with quirky little indie movies, it achieved cult status and enjoys a continuing afterlife. And justly so. The film, directed by Michael Lehmann from a script by Daniel Waters, was a delightfully subversive view of teenage politics that took potshots at adolescent narcissism, the social viper’s nest of high school and the grief-counseling industry.
In effect, Lehmann and Waters conspired to create a caustic response to the angsty but sentimental teen comedies of John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink).
This stage musical, wrenched from its original context, makes less sense. But it reminds us that the source material was sadly prophetic. Released more than 10 years before the Columbine High School Massacre, the film depicts an adolescent so isolated and nihilistic that he takes it upon himself to murder his girlfriend’s tormentors and tries to bomb the high school.
Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, who co-wrote the music and lyrics for the stage show, raise questions about morality, existential loneliness and pursuit of status.
Despite the Unicorn production’s frenzied tone, the poignancy and dramatic weight come tightly wrapped in the lyrics, which consistently capture the quiet — and sometimes not so quiet — desperation of people trying to make sense of random cruelty and an indifferent universe.
The central character is Veronica Sawyer (Katie Karel), who drives the story along with deadpan diary entries that reflect her desire to be accepted by the three reigning high-school bitch queens, all of whom have the same first name — Heather.
The Heathers — Molly Denninghoff, Colleen Grate and Chioma Anyanwu — are a visually spectacular trio in color-coordinated outfits. Collectively, these performers have charisma to spare.
After the quick-thinking Veronica, whose talents include forgery, saves the Heathers from detention with a fake hall pass, she is accepted into the group — but only as a servile lackey.
Veronica falls in love after she observes the alienated, black trench-coated loner J.D. (Thomas Delgado) make quick work of a couple of dumb jocks in a cafeteria altercation. As they become close, J.D. casts himself as an avenging angel who begins taking out anyone he believes is making Veronica miserable.
Karel is one of the best singers in town. Indeed, I find her distinctive tremolo irresistible. But her performance as Veronica is curiously detached. I kept waiting for some heat, but it never materialized. Delgado, in his Kansas City debut, makes a vivid impression as J.D., whose alienation hovers just behind a charming smile.
Denninghoff is impressively icy as the ringleader of the Heathers. Grate stops the show in Act 2 with a haunting number, the melancholy “Lifeboat.” Anyanwu, despite her formidable stage presence, is largely restricted to a third-banana role.
You can see some fine work among the supporting players. Teddy Trice and Jacob Aaron Callum are inventive and entertaining as a couple of dim-bulb football players. Shon Ruffin, as the unpopular Martha, in Act 2 delivers an electrifying solo, “Kindergarten Boyfriend.”
Vincent Onofrio Monachino and Mike Ott, as two grieving dads, make a fine comic duo in “My Dead Gay Son.” And Val Fagan threatens to steal the second act as Mrs. Fleming, the empathetic/narcissistic school principal who gathers the student body so that everyone can share their feelings about the recent tragic deaths.
Technically, the show is polished to an impressive sheen.
Here’s a parting suggestion for the cast and production team of Heathers: The Musical — slow it down a bit.
And while you’re at it, turn down the volume. Don’t be so frantic. Give the material a chance to breathe. It deserves it.
Heathers the Musical runs through June 26 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or visit the website at www.unicorntheatre.org.