I have a confession to make: my first experience of Heathers: The Musical – currently showing at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay – was in an episode of popular American teen chaos depository Riverdale, performed as part of a school production that ended with a real murder. Evidently a great choice for a TV series that, much like the original 80s incarnation of Heathers, trades in the darker side of young adult high school drama with results that split audiences (and critics) down the middle. It was a weird movie at its time of release and remains a weird one to this day, but that’s what makes it a cult favourite for those who march to the offbeat of its drum.
The result is a musical adaptation that leans into its own freakiness and, as a result, may not be to everyone’s tastes. But whatever you make of the story and themes, Heathers: The Musical is an undeniable spectacle of razor-sharp wit, peppy dance routines and splashy colour.
Speaking to its possible marmite qualities, despite some obviously eager audience members in either full Heather cosplay or suited and booted like JD-apeing alt kids of the era, the applause is a little tentative during much of the first act at this performance in Cardiff‘s WMC. Part of this is down to the source material itself actually taking a while to really show its hand for what it is – a pitch-black rom-com with violent outbursts and iconic crassness (“Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw!”). Another part of it is the added peculiarity of those familiar with the film getting accustomed to the shift to stage musical. The more understated performances of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater as the Bonnie & Clyde-esque Veronica and JD are made appropriately larger than life by Rebecca Wickes and Simon Gordon.
Like any adaptation, you bring your own relationship to the original content with you, and for me, it took until the very end of Act One to let Heathers: The Musical worm its way under my skin besides Heathers the film, a favourite of mine since I was around Veronica, JD and the Heathers’ ages myself. But by the time Act Two rolls around and the plot really has revealed itself for what it is – and gin and tonics and those tiny theatre ice creams are in hand – everyone, myself included, settles into the feel of the thing. It’s also the second act that hides what are arguably the most impactful songs, from I Love My Dead Gay Son to Lifeboat.
The soundtrack, on the whole, is excellent, and perhaps carries the production through certain parts that might have benefitted from some more interesting staging. In fact, it’s a testament to the show that the numbers I heard once in Riverdale all that time ago instantly came flooding back to me when the first notes rang through the WMC. Even though I had some idea of what to expect, I was still sceptical, going in, of how well showtunes would marry with Heathers’ brand of gleeful destructiveness. But while there are maybe one or two songs that feel a little like filler material, all in all, these are hefty, memorable tunes that fill the space well performed by a cast clearly enjoying letting their hair down a bit – and their clothes, in some cases.
Fans of the film will find much to like in this production and in the atmosphere it creates once the audience is a bit warmed up (hard to do in early December, in all fairness). Meanwhile, those new to Heathers and its world of scrunchies, Slurpees and suicide can instead appreciate an off-kilter trip back to the 80s with literally killer showstoppers.
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Thurs 2 Dec. Heathers runs until Fri 4 Dec. Info: here.
words HANNAH COLLINS
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