BareStage’s ‘Heathers: The Musical’ introduces myriad complexities in transformation of source material

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“Homo! Homo! Homo!” are genuine lyrics in the opening number of “Heathers: The Musical,” Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s musical interpretation of the 1988 cult film. Though written to exhibit the intolerance of protagonist Veronica Sawyer’s Sherwood, Ohio, high school senior class of 1989 — intolerance (very) debatably overcome later in the musical — BareStage Productions’ staging of this line immediately indicated the delectable layer of complexity that this production would add to its source material.

For those unfamiliar with the original film, “Heathers” is a dark satire of the high school movies and culture of the 1980s — one that addresses the problem of bullying by killing off the popular kids and staging their suicides. “[Its musical adaptation] does a pretty good job of depicting the serious nature of the attempted high school massacre for a modern audience but, in some ways, fails to do the same for its depiction of teenage suicide,” explained director Elizabeth Mathis (the show’s programme includes phone numbers for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and Bay Area Crisis Support).

In BareStage’s production, as Veronica’s (Josie Clark) classmates chant “homo,” they surround her, pointing their slurs singularly toward the lead — a stage direction nonexistent in the original off-Broadway show. Similarly nonexistent in the original: any hint of the leading lady’s queerness. BareStage, however, rendered Veronica’s love interest JD a woman (Teddy Lake). The result? An utterly transfixing theatrical experience.

“JD’s character represents a specific set of ideas that aren’t specific to gender,” stated Mathis. “I think anyone who sees the production will agree that (JD’s actress, Teddy Lake) is so much more convincing as the charming and dangerous iconic character than the scores of men before her who only got the part because they could hit those high notes.”

In part, the choice served the purpose of helping the “normalization of queer representation,” articulated Lake, who approached Mathis during casting with her desire to “gender-bend” Veronica’s love interest.

But even more so, through placing a queer relationship at the show’s center, this iteration of the production added much-needed complexity to the source material. As Veronica and JD sing “Our Love is God,” the thought of how incredibly powerful this statement is when made by a queer couple cannot be suppressed, even as their relationship becomes increasingly problematic.

In the original musical, “ ‘Gay’ is just an insult,” described Lake, pointing to the musical number “Dead Gay Son,” which she states, “just uses gay people as a prop.” Though the song presents itself as a motion toward ending homophobia, its message is muddled by its simultaneous attempt to preserve its titular punchline, a line from the 1988 film: “I love my dead gay son.”

While this musical number is kept largely the same in the BareStage production, it is provided new context by virtue of this iteration’s central queer relationship. BareStage’s “Heathers” possesses tangible, nonspeculative queer characters who are complex, important and far from mere punchlines. This not only detracts from the original musical’s problematic and singular gay representation, but it also adds double entendre and deeper meaning to unchanged lines. JD’s line, “How often can you say it’s a good day to live in Sherwood, Ohio,” is no longer an attempt to justify his horrific actions behind a guise of progressivism; rather, it shines light upon JD’s experience as a queer woman in the 1980s Midwest.

Lake and Clark’s chemistry as the murderous central couple is palpable, providing a strong, emotional basis for their increasingly unhealthy relationship. At points, their relationship, in its radiant complexity, nearly overshadows every other aspect of the musical, enough to welcome new fans of the musical and to make well-versed fans rethink JD’s motivations.

That’s not to say the other characters and visual aspects of the show don’t get their moment in the spotlight, however. Shazdeh Hussain, who plays Martha Dunnstock, steals the show with her tender and evocative performance of “Kindergarten Boyfriend.” Hussain’s portrayal of the bullied, unpopular girl is endearing and precious in her character’s eager and excited moments and heartbreaking in her moments of despair.

Clark delivers an unbelievably consistent performance throughout the musical, despite Veronica’s many, incredibly vocally challenging songs. Her impressive vocal range and spot-on comedic timing render her utterly perfect for the precocious and complex lead.

The ruthlessness of Veronica’s commander in chic, “mythic bitch” Heather Chandler (Emily Bacon) is even more haunting behind Bacon’s sweet face and innocent eyes, providing a youthfulness to the character that’s often missing in other performances. Her youth serves as a harrowing reminder of how the vicious and cruel teenagers depicted by the musical are canonically even younger than the college students portraying them.

The show’s lighting design proved its brilliance in its articulation of the original film’s simple color plotting, coloring the musical with four major primary-color lights: one for each Heather, and one for Veronica. All the more, the VHS tape at the show’s beginning innovatively ties the musical to its source film and decade alike: Syd Straw’s “Que Sera, Sera” plays over footage of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the U.S. AIDS epidemic, President Ronald Reagan and a smoke-covered Winona Ryder, the original Veronica Sawyer.

These factors are beautifully woven in tandem with the queer relationship at the musical’s heart, enriching the already exceptional show with depth, grounding and relevance that far surpass its source content.

“Heathers: The Musical” is playing April 21, 22, 28 and 29 at 8 p.m. and April 23 and 30 at 5 p.m. at the UC Berkeley Choral Rehearsal Hall.

Miyako Singer conducted interviews. Caroline Smith attended the show, combining the interview material with her review.

Contact Caroline Smith at [email protected]. Miyako Singer covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @miyasinger.