Bigger than John Lennon: Heathers comes to Brock

HEATHERSLOGO

If you’re not too familiar with them as a whole, your thoughts might turn to something like Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music, happy-go-lucky people singing because they haven’t got a care in the world. If that’s your idea of a musical, you’ve got it all wrong I’m afraid. They’re so much better than you could ever imagine.

Nothing will shatter your perceptions of a musical faster than Heathers, the production currently being put together by Brock Musical Theatre. Heathers is based on the cult classic 80s film, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. A musical version has popped up in the last few years and it’s one of the most outrageous plays to ever hit the stage. Everything that made the original film a cult classic has been amped up here: all of its dark humour has been given an even darker edge, all of its uncomfortable topics turned into huge musical numbers. The original Heathers is well regarded, but the musical’s popularity is far further reaching and it’s easy to see why. The musical version capitalizes on all of the components of the film that were perhaps a little too uncomfortable for audiences of the time and sells them to a generation who are far more willing to talk (and sometimes joke) openly about all of these things.

Brock Musical Theatre, a student-built and student-run group, is putting on a production of Heathers this year. It’s the latest in a long line of successful annual shows that includes Legally Blonde, American Idiot and Tommy. Over 100 people auditioned for Heathers: only 25 people ended up being cast, with one of BMT’s core crew members taking on the final role. When I had a chance to talk with the cast and crew, it became clear that the dark, blunt style of comedy was a huge part of the appeal of the show.

“The show has a lot of dark humour, which I think is perfect for our generation,” said Grace Martins, who plays the lead role of Veronica. “There is a message beneath all of the crazy stuff.”

There’s a deep understanding amongst the cast that, while the show is heightened and exaggerative, it touches at some very real experiences and feelings as Katie Cole (one of the show’s two choreographers) explains.

“Even just the name calling (referring to a huge, insult-hurling shouting match that erupts in the first act) is pretty real. The amount of times in high school I would walk down the halls and hear people yell things like that and just scream at each other. But it was just so normal.”

The play is certainly uncomfortable at times, which is by design. Much of Heathers focuses on topics that many would rather not think about or discuss, from sex to sexual assault to murder to homophobia.

“The first line of the song ‘Beautiful’ is an insult,” said Emily Moricz, who plays a Nerdy Sci-Fi Loser (that’s the character’s name in the script, not my assessment). “It was a hurdle for me to get over that but you have to get over that and be in that mindset.”

The subject matter combined with the huge, spectacular style that comes with a musical, can make Heathers a little intimidating but, as Martins explains, it can be very rewarding to be willing to engage with that material.

“One of the things I really like about theatre is that it’s ruthless to an extent,” says Martins. “It’s not afraid to show things people might not necessarily talk about; there’s literally a song in the show about blue balls. Theatre blows this stuff up and forces people to listen up and pay attention. Because it’s so overdramatic that it almost seems like less of a big deal and that means that people can talk about it and laugh about it.”

But it’s not as though Heathers turns every awkward conversation into a fun song and dance: there’s dark comedy, but there’s also just darkness.

“It’s also not like everyone gets a shot at redemption,” said Marcus Tranquilli, who plays Ram. “At the end of the show everyone’s happy and gets to be a teenager again. But the people who die, they die as shallow people and they’re shallow every time they come back. It’s a nice contrast and adds a certain element of reality: some people are just not nice people.”

While the musical itself drew a lot of people towards BMT, it became clear while watching their rehearsals that, while that might be why they came, they stayed for one another. Quentin Wilson, the band director for Heathers, explained that a lot of his excitement stems from the people around him.

“I joined on a few years ago with the musical Tommy, because I really liked that musical,” said Wilson. “I didn’t really like musicals until all of this began; it didn’t take long for me to be like ‘this is awesome, musicals are sweet.’”

Even for Dramatic Arts Students, Brock Musical Theatre offers something a little different, as Cole explains.

“My program is phenomenal, but it’s kind of a bubble because you spend so much time with the people in your program,” said Cole. “I wanted an opportunity to branch out and still do something that I love but expand my circle a little bit.”

Candice Des Freitas, who plays Heather Chandler in the play, was also very excited about the opportunity to take on something outside of her academic pursuits at Brock.

“I deal with some mental health issues and all I do sometimes is school work. I got approached by Tyler after Brock’s Got Talent last year and was invited to audition. I went home and watched the movie and thought ‘what the hell is this play?’ but then I decided that, whatever, I need something fun in my life and I’m so grateful to have met all of these people, we’re basically a family now.”

“I’ve met some people through BMT that have gone on to become some of the best friends that I made at Brock and will stay that way for the rest of my life,” said Austin Gagnier, who plays JD. “There’s a lot more that goes on backstage that we value as much as the performance.”

While there is a lot of exceptional talent involved in this production, the auditioning team for Heathers weren’t necessarily looking for the best singers or actors. More than anything, it seems, they were looking for a positive attitude.

“We really put an emphasis on people who would work well with this atmosphere,” explained Wilson.

Everyone is working hard to make the show as good as it can be: underneath the laughter and fun being had is a real determination to put in as much effort as possible and make sure that effort is going in all the right places. It’s not self-serving either: no one is out to prove that they’re the best, they just want to do what’s best for the show because that’s what’s best for the people they’re doing that show with. They’re here out of love and it shows. On top of some incredible acting, singing and choreography I experienced some incredibly touching and human moments between the cast in my afternoon with them. They described themselves as a family a lot and I got to see that first hand. Even in a rehearsal filled with cast and crew, brilliant performances were awarded with thunderous applause from colleagues while missteps were handled with humility and professional, constructive criticism. Everyone is eager to improve and is paying attention, offering suggestions and listening carefully to the suggestions and directions they’re given.

On the subject of performances, this is one of the most talented groups of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. Even with so much time to go before the show in March, Heathers is in incredible shape. Directors Quynn Oates and Jenna Freeland came to this project with a vision that even in these relatively early stages is giving the show a sense of purpose and direction.

The leads for the show have settled into their roles nicely and are really bringing their characters to life. Veronica and JD, played by Grace Martins and Austin Gagnier respectively, play off of each other brilliantly, really capturing the spirit of their relationship: Veronica initially caught off guard by his vague, elusive pretentiousness, realizing only too late how cruel he is. Martins sells every aspect of the character brilliantly: the nervousness of a high schooler who wants to be popular, the frustration of being essentially an errand girl for the popular kids, the initial infatuation with the edgy loner and her horror at the events that unfold. Gagnier’s JD is also pitch perfect, building in intensity and horror as the play goes on. His performance of ‘Freeze Your Brain’ is a benchmark for how solo performances in musicals should be done: a chance to strut your stuff, but staying true to the role. Gagnier’s performance gives you great insight into who JD is and that’s down to his understanding of the material much more so than the song itself.

While on the subject of the musical numbers, I must tip my hat to Emma Goodman and Katie Cole, choreographers for the show. They’re doing a fantastic job: everybody’s movements feel rooted in the essence of the character while reflecting the vibe of the song. ‘Big Fun’ is big and, well, fun, in their hands, with huge ensemble movements that are almost mesmerizing to watch. ‘Candy Store’ is brash, sultry and just as sickly sweet as it needs to be to sell the Heathers. ‘Blue’ does a brilliant job too of capturing the disgusting obnoxiousness of drunken teens trying to get laid: it’s as uncomfortable as it is entertaining which is a very difficult balance to strike, but Cole and Goodman have done so masterfully (not to downplay the brilliance of Marcus Tranquilli and Ethan Boc as Ram and Kurt, who perform the number fantastically). Martins blew me away with her rendition of ‘Dead Girl Walking,’ both on her own and playing off of Gagnier; their chemistry is fantastic and it really shines in moments like this.

I hate to pick favourites, but what stood out most to me was the Heathers themselves. Future productions of Heathers should be taking these performances as gospel; I find it hard to see these characters played by anyone else having seen them here. Shannon Fletcher and Brittney Journeau play Heather McNamara and Heather Duke respectively; they bring to the role all the vicious vacuousness required of them, always too aloof to care about Veronica’s day but present enough to bully and boss her around. Their presence is also incredibly menacing; they’re as much mafia as they are clique. The moment where Heather Duke takes up the very dead (sorry for spoilers!) Heather Chandler’s scrunchie and assumes control of the Heathers is darkly funny, but also insidious for what it says about the so-called friendship they shared.

And that’s not to mention Heather Chandler herself (played by Candice Des Freitas). Even amongst so much talent, Des Freitas stood out to me as a showstopper and a show stealer. When she’s introduced in the play she’s described as a ‘mythic b*tch’ and I can’t imagine anyone delivering on that description as vividly as Des Freitas does. Her anger that someone would be able to forge a good hall pass that she didn’t already know about it palpable. Her shrill yelling at Veronica about everything from her being thrown up on to an insatiable desire for corn nuts is so delightful and fills the room with unprecedented vanity and short-temperedness. Des Freitas sells Heather Chandler as a diva queen, completely incapable of imagining a world where she doesn’t get what she wants right away. I was only able to catch a run through of the first act, but her crowning moment is ‘The Me Inside of Me,’ sung while Veronica and JD try and forge a suicide note from Heather (whom they have accidentally-on-purpose murdered). While students and faculty pass around copies of the suicide note to read and, in essence, study (which is as morbidly humorous as it sounds), the ghost of Heather Chandler walks across the top of the stage, looking down on everyone, judging both the note and people’s reactions to it. She’s delighted by how sad her death has made people and flattered by how intelligent Veronica’s note makes her sound, singing along with the rest of the cast as though the words really were her own. Filled with excitement at her popularity even in death, she jumps up and screams what is definitely the best line in the entire play: “I’m bigger than John Lennon!” Des Freitas’ performance is inspired, perfectly capturing the shallowness of the character in all its macabre glory, but still making Heather Chandler’s presence fun.

This production of Heathers is coming along spectacularly. It’s full of passion and verve, drawn together by a cohesive vision that highlights both the unique qualities of the show and the huge talents of the people putting it together. I have been truly swept off my feet by the hard work and dedication of the Brock Musical Theatre group and I can’t wait for everyone to be able to see the final product. You’re going to love it as much as they’ve loved putting it together.

Heathers will be performed by Brock Musical Theatre on March 14, 15 and twice on Mar. 16 at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre; tickets will be available soon through their box office. The cast also hopes to put on a showcase night at Mahtay Cafe in early March.

Leads (9):
Grace M as Veronica Sawyer
Austin G as Jason “J.D” Dean
Candice D as Heather Chandler
Shannon F as Heather McNamara
Brittney J as Heather Duke
Carlene D as Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock
Marcus T as Ram Sweeney and Vocal Captain
Ethan B as Kurt Kelly
Serena S as Pauline Fleming
Adults (3):
Taj C as Bill Sweeney (Ram’s Dad)/Officer McCord/Principal Gowan
Tyler L as Paul Kelly (Kurt’s Dad)
Kristina C as Coach Ripper/Mrs. Sawyer

Ensemble teens (14):
Heidi N as Stoner Chick
Danika M as New Wave Girl
Stuart M Beleaguered Geek/Big Bud Dean
Paige C as Young Republicanette
Aidan B as Preppy Stud/Officer Milner/Mr. Sawyer (Veronica’s Dad)
Leah R as Hipster Dork
Kat A as Goth Chick
Danielle B as Pop Punk Kid
Danielle M as New Kids On The Block Overload Girl
Colleen D as The Closeted But Obvious Lesbian and Dance Captain
Katie F as Preppy Cheerleader
Melissa A as Preppy Cheerleader
Emily M as Nerdy Sci Fi Loser
Renee F as Angsty Theatre Kid

CREW:
Quynn O – Director
Jenna F – Director
Quentin W – Music (Band) Director
Tyler L – Vocal Director
Lia S – Stage Manager
Emma G – Choreographer
Katie C – Choreographer
Emma C – Assistant Stage Manager
Alyssa R – Assistant Stage Manager
Allyson C – President of Brock Musical Theatre
Danielle P – Head of Make-Up

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