CEDAR RAPIDS — “Heathers” is to die for.
The killer musical, onstage through July 15 at Theatre Cedar Rapids, is a guilty pleasure. Writers Laurence O’Keefe (“Legally Blonde”) and Kevin Murphy (“Desperate Housewives”) have taken the 1988 cult classic film and mashed up music and mayhem, wrapped in a bright red scrunchie. It’s like a teen slasher movie-turned-musical, where everything’s over-the-top outrageous.
Comments on social media likened it to a blend of “Sweeney Todd,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Mean Girls.”
However, an all-too-real vein of reality pulses through the surreality.
It’s peppy but creepy, as it explores the darkest corners of adolescent angst, tearing through bullying that’s so bad it causes the brooding new boy, Jason “J.D.” Dean (Austin Wicke), to take deadly aim at the mean girls and jocks. J.D. spirals downward at a dizzying pace until he firmly believes the only way out is to take out everybody so goodness can start all over.
In light of the recent rash of school violence, the show’s themes are unsettling. But art has been mirroring life since cave man days. It’s not a bad thing when art makes you squirm, and these players do it so well.
In the beginning, we meet the in-crowd and outcasts of Ohio’s fictional Westerberg High School. The Heathers are the ruling class: ringleader Heather Chandler (Kit Walters), leader-wannabe Heather Duke (Shelby Zukin) and cheerleader Heather McNamara (Ferin Bergen). If they like you, you’re in. If they don’t, you’re out.
Outsider Veronica Sawyer (Emmy Lane Palmersheim) wants to be “in” so badly that she’ll turn her back on her even-more-outcast best friend, Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (Kelli Massey) and her own sense of right and wrong. She has a talent the Heathers want: Veronica can forge anyone’s signature on anything from hall passes to eventual suicide notes.
But being “in” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When she shouts out, “What’s your damage,” she could be talking to any teen and adult on stage. Even the coolest of cool sport a facade to mask their fears.
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Palmersheim shines as Veronica, with killer pipes that can belt out joy, anger, frustration and any other emotion she brings to the surface. Wicke brings a frightening ferocity to J.D., dressed in a black trenchcoat that’s become an all-too-familiar visual depiction for terror.
Wicke and Palmersheim bring a mature authenticity to their characters’ inner demons. They wring out the most unsettling moments in the second act.
All three Heathers are outstanding as they strut and snap their way through life before being shaken to their cores. Bullying football heroes Kurt (Lincoln Klopfenstein) and Ram (D.J. Kohl) get sacked in the end zone after running their mean scenes, too, from the school cafeteria to a booze-laden party to a cemetery — touching on themes of humiliation and date-rape.
And yet, amid all of the horrors runs a message of hope. That is the show’s saving grace — that and Joni Sackett’s spot-on costumes, Daniel Kelchen’s transformer scenery, Amanda Mayfield’s dramatic lighting, Benjamin Schmidt’s killer orchestra, Anna Slife’s bright choreography and Emma Drtina’s thoughtful, deft direction.
The themes are tough, but the show is delicious as each numbing brain freeze melts away in the end.
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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
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