“a shouty affair that drowns out much of the tragedy, truth and trauma running through the heart of the piece”
I approach “Heathers the Musical” somewhat as an outsider. In a seemingly packed, though socially distanced auditorium, I am detached from the majority of the audience. Although I am hoping to be drawn in, and accepted. Based on the eighties’ movie, which originally flopped only to become a cult; the musical rapidly became a cult in its own right while skipping the pre-requisite critical rejection that qualifies its status. What marks this production out from the start is the enthusiasm with which it is presented and received. Everything about it is heightened and it often feels like you are in a cartoon.
Set very specifically in 1989, it adopts the high school setting so popular at the time, but twists the genre into something much darker. It reaches further than the typical subject matter of peer pressure and rebellion and attempts to grapple with teenage suicide and the fatal attraction of belonging to a clique. The clique in question is a trio of girls, all called Heather, who hold sway with a swagger that pushes credibility to the limit. For reasons governed by plot clichés, the protagonist – Veronica – is desperate to run with this pack. To say that she eventually outruns them is no spoiler; we can all see it coming as visibly as the love interest side-line.
What rescues the storyline are the quirks, the shocks and body-count that we don’t anticipate. And the oddball minor characters that outshine the leads in most cases. Andy Fickman’s production is a shouty affair that drowns out much of the tragedy, truth and trauma running through the heart of the piece. The more successful moments are when the volume gets turned down and the irony and sporadic subversiveness is allowed to be heard.
Christina Bennington is in fine voice as Veronica, torn between following her fantasy (in the shape of the three Heathers) or her conscience, represented by the Baudelaire reading, enigmatic Jason ‘JD’ Dean; gleefully played with a tongue-in-cheek assuredness by Jordan Luke Gage. His rapid metamorphosis from sympathetic to psychopathic is fun to watch. Less so are the eponymous Heathers; Jodie Steele, Bobbie Little and Frances Mayli McCann who screech far too much for their own good. At least Steele has the advantage of her ‘Heather’ being killed off fairly early on, allowing her to come back and haunt the perpetrators – a sardonic ghost that sheds more light and shade on proceedings than those still alive and clinging onto a script that is pulling them under.
It is buoyed up by the music that, despite its subject matter, powers the piece with energy and optimism. Bizarrely this sense of optimism and misplaced nostalgia is what characterises “Heathers” which, in effect, is a musical about high school killers. It makes light of the issues but doesn’t succeed in highlighting them by the humour. But what do I know? As I said at the start – I am the outsider; detached from the rest of the audience. There’s no denying this is a solid production, with a dream cast of West End talent. And there’s no denying its guaranteed success. It has bludgeoned its way into its cult status – but at the cost of sensitivity.
“The pace of the production is unrelenting, and the hit list of songs comes thick and fast”
There is ‘Magic to Do’ in the round, underneath the arches at Charing Cross Theatre with this new production of Stephen Schwartz’s classic musical Pippin. Director Steven Dexter takes on his fourth production of the show, developing his version from last autumn at the Garden Theatre.
Performed by a versatile ensemble of eight, Pippin (Ryan Anderson) – with shades of Peer Gynt – goes off on a life journey in search of success and fulfilment, aided and abetted by a troupe of travelling hippie players who may, or may not, have Pippin’s best interests at heart. Always by Pippin’s side is the scheming, snake-hipped Leading Player (Ian Carlyle) who, when not centre stage, can be found observing close by, conducting the band, directing the lighting changes and marshalling his players. He leads Pippin a merry dance intending it to culminate in a sensational Grand Finale – both the show’s and Pippin’s – if fate or love does not intervene.
The set is colourful and vibrant with copious suns and flowers, the circular stage area reminiscent of a big top circus ring. This is 1967, the year of the Summer of Love, and flower-power is in its ascendancy. As we take our seats, the fragrance of incense in the air, Pippin – peace and love symbols embroidered onto his jeans – sits alone, brooding. We hear a soundtrack of sixties songs – The Beach Boys, Cream – interspersed with news bulletins of progress of the Vietnam War. But as the action begins, the period feel becomes less important. This story is timeless.
The pace of the production is unrelenting, and the hit list of songs comes thick and fast – ‘Corner of the Sky’, ‘Glory’, ‘Morning Glow’ ‘Kind of Woman’. The two-piece band is supported by the ensemble with a rhythmic drive of finger clicks, foot stamps and the beating of their own cajons. Together in song and dance they re-enact Pippin’s life, each member taking the role of a significant other in the story: his father, mother, grandmother, lover. And as each player takes centre stage, they are treated to a drum roll from their fellows. Special mention is due here for Genevieve Nicole as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, who so nearly steals the show whilst leading the audience in a sing along of ‘No Time at All’. But everyone excels: the words are clear, the singing powerful, the variety of dance styles exhilarating.
But it is Pippin and the Leading Player who are the equal stars of this show. Anderson is sympathetic in his portrayal of Pippin as his character swings from vulnerability to exuberance and then through apathy to tenderness when he allows himself to find love with his Catherine. And his energy is balanced by Carlyle’s control in showing the Player’s cynicism, persuasion, and drive to produce the spectacular. Together the couple command the stage, and no more than during their duet ‘On the Right Track’.
The production is family-friendly with no severed limbs or decapitated heads. And the sexual hijinks are more sensual and implied than explicit, with no more than a hint of bump-and-grind.
The work of Stephen Schwartz will be well represented this year on the London stage with Wicked, The Prince of Egypt, The Children of Eden and Godspell all upcoming but the run begins here with this fine and most enjoyable revival of his first big success.