Review: Heathers: The Musical at Red Branch Theatre Company

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

HeathersMain

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

Get crucial, already! Not to put a limit on an audience, but if you are a child of the 80s and even 90s (though you may be older or younger), you are probably familiar with Heathers, the iconic dark comedy 1989 film starring ever-emo Wynonna Ryder and Christian Slater. If you are not familiar with this film stop whatever you are doing (after you read this article) and find this film somewhere! It needs to be on someone’s list of “movies to see before you die”! In the meantime, the current offering from our friends at Red Branch Theatre Company is Heathers: The Musical, Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell, with Music Direction by John C. Henderson, Choreography by Brandon Glass, Set Design by Cliff Hannon, Lighting Design by Lynn Joslin, and Costume Design by Cierra Coan. If you’re looking for some nostalgia and want to be transported back to that radically awesome year of 1989, Red Branch Theatre Company is the place to be for the next couple of weekends!

(l-r) Megan Bunn as Heather Duke, Tiara Whaley as Heather Chandler, Geocel Batista as Heather McNamara - "Candy Store" Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

(l-r) Megan Bunn as Heather Duke, Tiara Whaley as Heather Chandler, Geocel Batista as Heather McNamara – “Candy Store” Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

Anyone who’s been to high school knows them they go by different names and have different styles but every school has a group of Heathers – The most popular, powerful kids in school that every loves, hates, or loves to hate. On the surface their lives are perfect, their clothes are perfect, their hair is perfect, and their time in high school is perfect… but is it? Heathers: The Musical takes musical, funny, dark a peek into high school popularity, being an outcast, self-confidence or lack of, and just being a teenager trying to navigate through all of it and, in this case, there’s a body count!

Walking into Red Branch, I could tell the audience was energized and excited as a buzz of excitement filled the air and there were even a few dedicated patrons who dressed the parts in the Heathers colors of red, yellow, and green. I was quite impressed with the intimate theatre that seats about 120 folks, give or take a patron, and the simple, yet very appropriate set by Cliff Hannon. The very blue unit set is simple, yet complex as there are no permanent set pieces cluttering the stage but the various levels work nicely with the action that goes on in the production. Various and clever entrances and exits on both sides of the stage keep the movement very fluid and interesting with characters popping in and out all over the stage. Hannon manages to create an exciting unit set without filling his stage up with too many distractions and still be very pleasing to the eye. As any of the Heathers would say, “It’s very!”

To complement the set design, Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin does an outstanding job creating the perfect tone, adding value to the performance with just the right amount of color, brightness, and darkness. As this piece is a dark comedy, lighting is very important and can make or break each scene but Joslin’s light design is well thought-out and manages to set the proper mood for each scene and moves the action along pleasantly.

Taylor Witt as Kurt Kelly and Tendo Nsubuga as Ram Sweeney lead the ensemble in "Big Fun" Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

Taylor Witt as Kurt Kelly and Tendo Nsubuga as Ram Sweeney lead the ensemble in “Big Fun” Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography

I can only imagine that costuming a period 1980s piece can be a challenge and quite fun at the same time and Costume Design by Cierra Coan is absolutely spot on and very well thought-out! Her challenge was the fact that the style of this piece was late 80s with the early 90s sneaking in but the colorful, tucked in long sleeve shirts on the guys to the women blazers that are more shoulder pads than anything else take the audience back to a 1989 high school hallway and it is glorious. Coan gives each actor his or her own “look” and, since one of the themes of this piece is “fitting in” giving the piece authenticity and nostalgia adding great production value.

I was hesitant when, a few years back, I’d heard that one of my favorite films was being made into a musical. I’d listened to a few tunes from this piece but I couldn’t imagine my Heathers (and Veronica) singing and dancing their way through their days in the halls of Westerburg High. However, Music Director John C. Henderson had them doing just that… with gusto! Many individual voices in this production are phenomenal but as a cast they are hands down awesome! The harmonies are on point, the diction is superb, the balance is just right, and the power from the ensemble numbers feels like a cast full of Ethel Mermans onstage! The vocal abilities of this cast as a whole is worth the ticket price alone! Kudos to Henderson’s ability to pull this cast together, vocally, for a brilliant performance.

Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer and Hasani Allen as J.D. - "Our Love is God" Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer and Hasani Allen as J.D. – “Our Love is God” Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Along with song, you’ve got to have dance and it’s just another aspect of this production that was a joy to watch. Choreographer Brandon Glass’s choreography was absolutely entertaining to watch and was appropriate for the space. His stylish and complex dances made the cast look great and it looks as though the cast is having a blast performing the choreography, which is always good when the audience can see the joy in the faces of the cast. The dancing was tight and precise and each number was a pleasure to watch.

Director Amelia Acosta Powell is to be commended for her work with Heathers: The Musical. Her casting choices are magnificent and it’s great to see the diversity of the cast and how it works so very well for this piece. She uses her space very wisely with fluid and purposeful blocking, using the entire theatre with entrances and exits from the side and back of the theatre as well as the entrances and exits onstage. She seems to have understood the 1989 film and its themes of teenaged angst, the need to belong, self-confidence, and coming-of-age and transferred it beautifully to the stage in this production. Her minimal use of props and portable set pieces worked nicely, keeping the stage free of clutter but still helping tell the story. Her directing choices were near perfect and I’m looking forward to seeing more from Ms. Powell.

Hands down, the highlight of this production is the entire cast. It’d be difficult to pick out one individual performer to single out because the entire ensemble is phenomenal. Each group number such as “Beautiful,” “Big Fun,” and “Shine a Light” spotlighted the talent in this cast and how well they all worked together as a whole. I found myself excited for the next group number after one was over. Definite props to the Director, Music Director, and Choreographer for molding this cast into a cohesive unit that entertained and look like they are giving 100% to every aspect of this production.

The titular roles of the very different Heathers are played exquisitely by Tiara Whaley (Heather Chandler, the Queen Bee of Westerburg), Geocel Batista (Heather MacNamara, the follower but arguably the nicest of the Heathers), and Megan Bunn (Heather Duke, the possible 2nd in command and waiting for her chance to take over). These young ladies take these characters and hit the ground running, making them their own. They’re body language, tone, and look bring the Heathers to life brilliantly and they are an absolute joy to watch individually and as a trio.

Tiara Whaley, as Heather Chandler takes no prisoners and oozes the popularity that everyone envied in high school. Her numbers such as “Candy Store” and “Very” are energized and, though she seems to reach for her high notes, at times, are powerhouse performances.

Geocel Batista, as Heather MacNamara, is a delight to watch throughout the production as she doesn’t lose character once. The joy in her face is apparent throughout each number and her understanding of the character and how she would react to situations is clear, such as the poignancy that comes through in her solo “Lifeboat,” and she is an asset to any number she is in with her vocal and dance abilities.

Megan Bunn as the ever faithful yet cunning character of Heather Duke has the most prevalent change in the show and she pulls it off flawlessly. That change is precise and clear but seamless. She too is a powerhouse and rounds out the trio of Heathers brilliantly.

Vivian Cook as Veronic Sawyer (foreground) "Beautiful" Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Vivian Cook as Veronic Sawyer (foreground) “Beautiful” Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Veronica, the hesitant, yet thankful “geek” who managed to become a part of the Heathers is played by Vivian Cook and she tackles this role without a flaw or hesitation. From the moment she steps on stage in the opening number “Beautiful” she commands the stage and is very comfortable taking the reins of this production. Her character is spot on with the familiar film rendition but she also makes it her own bringing a refreshing look to Veronica. Cook is an accomplished vocalist and the numbers in which she takes the lead makes one stand up and take notice. Her comfort on stage is apparent especially with the very risqué and PG-13 (at least) number “Dead Girl Walking” which is captivating. Cook carries this production, with the help of the brilliant ensemble, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for her in the future.

(l-r) Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer, Hasani Allen as J.D. - "Freeze Your Brain" Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

(l-r) Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer, Hasani Allen as J.D. – “Freeze Your Brain” Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Side by side with Cook is Hasani Allen, who plays JD, the twisted, Jesse James-esque, brooding teenaged love interest of Veronica, plays the role confidently and intensely with a pronounced command of the stage and he’s hard not to watch when he’s on. Like Vivian Cook, he too plays his character very similar to the Christian Slater version of JD, but with his own flair that brings a freshness to the role that’s fun to watch. He is passion is crystal clear in his portrayal of his extreme character and adds depth to already flawless performance. His vocal numbers such as “Prom or Hell” and “Meant to be Yours” has him reaching for the higher notes, but his intensity in his performance certainly makes up for one or two missed notes. Overall, his performance is superb.

Tendo Nsubuga, Tiara Whaley, and Taylor Witt (left cluster), Amy Williamson as Martha and Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Tendo Nsubuga, Tiara Whaley, and Taylor Witt (left cluster), Amy Williamson as Martha and Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer. Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Amy Williamson, as the ultimate outcast Martha Dunstock (a.k.a. Martha Dumptruck) gives an emotional, heartfelt performance in her number “Kindergarten Boyfriend”, as she reminisces of times past when everyone were friends. Taylor Witt as Kurt and Tendo Nsubuga as Ram, the bumbling, uber-jock football players bring a perfect comedic timing to their characters and a male teenage honesty with their fun and unashamed number “Blue.”

Rounding out a couple of the featured adult characters are Amanda Spellman, who plays Ms. Fleming, the hippie teacher hailing from Berkley and Wil Lewis, III, who takes on the role of Ram’s Dad. Spellman is hilarious as the whispy seemingly flaky teacher trying to bring everyone together to share their feelings and she shines taking the lead in the ensemble number “Shine a Light”. As one of the few adult characters in this piece, Spellman is a standout. Wil Lewis, III, too is a highlight as one of the adult characters as Ram’s Dad, explaining how he loves his son no matter what in the uplifting, funny “My Dead Gay Son.”

Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer and Hasani Allen as J.D. "Our Love is God" Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Vivian Cook as Veronica Sawyer and Hasani Allen as J.D. “Our Love is God” Credit: Bruce F Press Photography

Final thought… Heathers: The Musical is a fun well-produced show with a dedicated and talented ensemble. If you are familiar with the original film, you will not be disappointed and if you are not familiar with it, you will be delighted to learn about what the kids at Westerburg High School are up to. The music is upbeat and fresh and the message of acceptance and the consequences for intolerance is timeless. You don’t want to miss this production of Heathers: The Musical!

This is what I thought of this production of Heathers: The Musical.… what do you think?

Heathers:The Musical will play through August 27, Friday-Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm, and select Saturdays at 2pm at Drama Learning Center, 9130-I Red Branch Road, Columbia, MD 21045. For tickets, call 410-997-9352 or purchase them online.

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