Musical theater meets murder and mayhem in the retro ’80s high school scene.
“Heathers: The Musical,” a 2014 off-Broadway hit, is based on the 1988 cult classic film in which three girls named Heather wield all the power at their Ohio high school, sparking deeply disturbing actions and reactions among their classmates.
The dark comedy opens Friday (6/29) and continues to July 15 at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
“It’s the ’80s version of ‘Mean Girls,’ with a little more dark humor,” said director Emma Drtina, 28, of Cedar Rapids. “It details the high school experience from a high schooler’s perspective, which I think is something these types of shows are missing.
“In high school, the stakes are so high,” she said. “It really shows the extremes of those high school emotions really well — whether it’s life or death or love — all of those things are very extreme, and they have an extreme opinions of those things, as well.”
Drtina hadn’t seen the movie yet, when she saw the musical version “on a whim” in New York. She “became a huge fan,” and suggested the show to the Theatre Cedar Rapids staff, where she serves as artistic associate. It made the grade, and they offered her the chance to direct it.
“I’m really excited for it,” she said. “We’re working with some great new talent.”
She’s especially pumped about their storytelling abilities. They’re dealing with some tough issues: murder, suicide and school violence, but they’re wrapped in humor and a peppy musical score.
With the current climate and hyperawareness of school violence, is this the best time or the worst time to mount this show?
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“It’s a good time to be staging it,” Drtina said. “Even though it takes place in 1989, it’s still definitely relevant to what we’re going through right now. I don’t think anything has changed as far as high school emotions go. In the end, it really does have an optimistic message.”
The movie gained a cult following, and the show has found its niche in moving from a concert version in 2010 in New York to a musical theater version that played to sold-out crowds in Los Angeles in 2014 before moving that year to the off-Broadway realm. Subsequent productions have followed in London and Australia.
“It definitely does address serious issues, but oftentimes, in a funny way that makes them more accessible,” Drtina said. “It’s more of an awareness piece. The humor makes the awareness of the serious issues more accessible, I think.”
It’s the story of Veronica (Emmy Lane Palmersheim), a misfit who wants to be one of the cool kids, at any price. Three Heathers who rule with an iron fist are ringleader Heather Chandler (Kit Walters), head cheerleader Heather McNamara (Ferin Bergen) and deeply insecure Heather Duke (Shelby Zukin), who wants to dethrone Heather Chandler. The brooding new guy, J.D. (Austin Wicke) wants to do away with them all, and the murders begin, masked by forged suicide notes.
“Veronica goes through this journey dealing with murder, dealing with suicide,” Drtina said. “It’s her journey of figuring out how to decipher between right and wrong in the face of this dark influence of J.D. and all of the characters around her, like the Heathers who come off as more negative.
“It’s her way of finding the hope and positivity through it all. In the end, it’s a more optimistic message than what you’d see on the surface of a synopsis.
“We’re trying to be very sensitive,” Drtina stressed. “In this climate of school violence and suicide, we’re trying to not tiptoe around those things, to make people aware of those real emotions that are being addressed in the show.”
Because J.D. seeks to right the school wrongs through murder, the deaths in the show will be depicted in an abstract way, Drtina said. “We don’t want that to be a trigger point for anyone.”
The show’s issues hit home with the lead actresses.
Palmersheim, 19, of Cedar Rapids, is open about her struggles with mental illness and has wrestled with her own dark thoughts.
Like her character, Heather Duke, Zukin, 20, of Iowa City, also has struggled with bulimia. “When we first started, this was really challenging,” she said, but as rehearsals have progressed, it’s been easier to separate the character from her own story.
When the going gets tough, Palmersheim takes her concerns to her therapist. It also helps that her dad is part of the production team. And like Zukin, she remembers that when she puts on the signature blazer, she’s not Emmy anymore, she’s Veronica.
“That’s what acting is,” said Walters, 19, of Chicago.
All four lead actresses agree that the key to protecting themselves is to create “a wonderful support system” among the cast and crew.
Ironically, Walters, the leader of the Heathers, is an outsider, but the stars aligned perfectly for her to be in the show. Her voice teacher knows the show’s musical director, Benjamin Schmidt, and encouraged her to audition. Since she has family and friends in the area, she’s been able to stay with them for the duration. Fortunately, she has clicked with the cast.
It’s the second time Bergen, 17, of Cedar Rapids, has portrayed Heather McNamara, so she’s had some practice in separating what’s happening onstage from her real life. She played the role in the musical’s high school version at Cedar Rapids Kennedy. Having her mom in the cast helps while doing this unedited version, she said.
Rehearsing the show has been emotionally exhausting for Palmersheim, cut she’s building up her inner stamina for the performances.
“In the same way that you would condition your body by stretching and drinking a lot of water, you have to prepare your mental well-being in your soul and your heart,” she said, whether through meditation or taking your prescribed medication.
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“Even when we’re not on stage, we are very friendly with one another,” she said. “It’s helpful when you walk offstage after someone is being mean to you and give them a big hug — you just know that you are still safe with that person.”
WHAT: “Heathers: the Musical”
WHERE: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
WHEN: Friday (6/29) to July 15; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
RATED: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned)
TICKETS: $36 adults, $28 youth/students, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
PARTY: Opening night preshow ’80s bash, 6 p.m. Friday (6/29), free with show ticket. Dress in your ’80s best and hang out for drink specials, music, professional event photography and more, then stick around after the show for a karaoke party.
SIGNED SHOW: 7:30 p.m. July 14. ASL interpreted performance for the hearing-impaired; for seating with the best view of the interpreter, call (319) 366-8571 or stop by the TCR box office.
HELPLINE: “Heathers” discusses mean teens, bullying, suicide and school violence. TCR notes that Foundation 2 offers confidential counseling and support to anyone struggling emotionally or having a difficult time; for details, go to Foundation2.org or call the Foundation 2 Crisis Center at 1-(800) 332-4224
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; email@example.com