“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 ingredients, the writing, the musicality and the star-studded cast promise something to be respected and admired. But there is a definite sense of disappointment.”
‘Disenchanted’ (dɪsɪnˈtʃɑːntɪd/): disappointed by someone or something previously respected or admired; disillusioned. Synonyms include; let down, fed up, cynical, disabused. There is no question as to who the ‘someone or something’ singled out in Dennis T. Giacino’s “Disenchanted! A New Musical Comedy” is, and its subversive twist on the Disney fairy tale marketing machine, if not new, is a delight to watch. The swipes at the established misogynism, racism and many other ‘isms’ inbuilt into the portrayal of our favourite princesses are much needed, and Giacino has dressed them in pastiche melodies and some ingeniously clever and witty lyrics. It could do with perhaps more subtlety and less preachiness and bitterness, but the energy and gung-ho feistiness of all involved will appeal to all genders and persuasions.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, some artistic decisions for this current digital revival make for awkward viewing, for the wrong reasons. ‘Digital’ is the key word. This is inherently a musical that needs to be witnessed live, in the flesh, a few sheets to the wind, in like-minded company. We, the audience, are being heckled and cajoled by these comic geniuses and we should be simultaneously shamed and charmed. It is cabaret at its finest. We should be ‘loving it!’. But, rather than challenging preconceptions, this version challenges our patience.
In the original Off-Broadway run in 2014 there is a wonderful moment midway through – a gorgeous swipe at the Disney franchise. The ‘Princess who Kissed the Frog’ sings “Why’d it take ‘em so long to give a sister a song… ‘cause I am that storybook princess that’s fin’lly gone black”. Giacino’s point is that it wasn’t until 2009 when, for the first time in animation history, the fairest of them all was black. Director Tom Jackson Greaves’ decision to introduce such diversity into the casting of ‘Disenchanted’ way before this moment lets the joke fall somewhat flat.
Overall, the irreverence of the material is dampened by the exaggerated gaiety of the cast. And the hue-changing green screen backdrop distracts instead of being a neutral backdrop to the colourful characters. It takes an effort not to be snagged by these grating hurdles, but for those who make the effort to overcome them there is some reward. There is a very fine line up of performers indeed. Led by Jodie Steele’s ‘Snow White’ and aided by side kicks Allie Daniel (Sleeping Beauty) and Sophie Isaacs (Cinderella) we are guided through a series of vignettes in which various princesses are summoned to sing their way through their dissatisfactions and parody the princess culture. Highlights include Grace Mouat’s ‘Pocahontas’ (a character hitherto homogenised by the entertainment industry willing to distort her true Native-American story purely to sell cinema tickets) who sardonically sings that she “looks like a porn star”. Jenny O’Leary, as ‘Rapunzel’, brilliantly bemoans the total absence of royalties she receives from the global merchandising of her name in a Kurt Weill inspired number. And Courtney Bowman’s scathing but catchy diatribe against Middle Eastern misogyny is inspired.
There is a tenuous thread running through the musical numbers, reinforced by the repeated #princesscomplex hashtag. The messages are clear, but even now becoming a bit dated; and the balance between spite and humour aren’t always weighed up fully. Its intended audience is clear too, but the delivery is confused and awkward, like the shady, disenchanted state of limbo an adolescent might feel: too old for the youth club but too young for the pub.
‘Disenchanted’ (dɪsɪnˈtʃɑːntɪd/): it lives up to its definition. The ingredients, the writing, the musicality and the star-studded cast promise something to be respected and admired. But there is a definite sense of disappointment.