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Heathers: The Musical — Vulcan Lyric at the Prince

11828710_1193596190656148_8743720618249306414_nSatire depends so much on how you play the joke. Especially when the satire is a dark comedy.

Be too transparent, and you lose the bite of your gambit. Get too heavy-handed, and the obviousness of your aim stops it from being trenchant. Push your point in a pandering way, and out goes the humor. The right balance must be found for the satire is to be incisive and funny.

“Heathers” is a mean satire of the cliques that reign in high schools, cliques that can be devastating if you long to get into one of them.

A goofily comic assessment of cliques can be found in the beginning moments of the summer movie, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the title of which may rankle grammatically but the observations and commentary in which are sharp and smartly presented. But “Me and Earl…” is not a satire.

In “Heathers,” the intention is to show how cliques affect life and self-esteem. Veronica, the heroine, knows the shallowness of high school hierarchy and doesn’t buy into the snobbery, power, and dismissiveness of being part of the most “in” of the “in” crowds, but she knows how to play the cool kids’ game and is willing to please and appease to reap the benefits of lofty social status and popularity. Veronica may be the cleverest of all. She is strategic while her classmates are either entrenched in their dominance, awed by the alleged superior, or just plain oblivious.

In Michael Lehmann’s 1988 movie, “Heathers,” the comic tone remains constant. Veronica becomes fed up with the delight in cruelty of the most popular girls, a trio of cheerleaders all named Heather, and becomes enamored with the charm and seeming logic of that sturdy teen standby, the rebel boy, J.D. who has some ideas about how to handle a Heather.

The movie “Heathers” is no classic by cinematic standards, but it a lasting favorite beloved by Gen X and Gen Y alike and a communal cultural memory of growing up at a specific time.

People liked the hint of justice in “Heathers” until it went too far, and J.D. is exposed as less of a rebel than a psychotic whose vengeance stops being funny or laudable. Lehmann, though no artist, was surehanded enough to keep the satire at the beginning of the film recognizable and vicious enough to be savory and to build tension and terror when the plot became dark, and J.D. no longer loomed as even an anti-hero.

“Heathers: The Musical” has all of the attributes of the movie. One can see how a production of Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s show could play, but as presented by director Eric Gibson for Vulcan Lyric, where “Heathers: the Musical” is one of a four-show maiden season in repertory, all is overplayed, so jokes seem tired and J.D.’s quirks become too suddenly sick. Gibson’s staging is too direct. It doesn’t have subtlety of satire or the patina of naughtiness needed to sustain the basic story Daniel Waters created for the movie or O’Keefe and Murphy have adapted for the stage.

All of the high school types are recognizable, but they are exaggerated. You don’t see people living their roles naturally, you see actors playing attitudes and stances self-consciously. In a way, Gibson’s production points up a major difference in the 25 years between the time Lehmann made his movie and Vulcan Lyric mounted O’Keefe and Murphy’s show. If you listen to current pop music and look carefully at today’s movies, you see an erosion of finesse. For a modern young audience, a script saying two people fall in love suffices to convince people that romance is indeed taking place. Actors no longer have to play that moment of spark. It’s taken for granted if the story says it happened.

The same is true in satire, or what passed for it. Everything is literal and on the surface. We tell you this is a joke, or we put someone in a strange costume, so you’re supposed to laugh it whether we’ve made in funny beyond simple presentation or not. Movie and plays have become like television sketch comedy, which has a time constraint and must telegraph jokes quickly and firmly. Current practice is to show someone in a situation that is potentially funny, and voila, humor is assumed. Layered details are abandoned for the stark presentation of a joke. Any cleverness involved in building a character or his or her satiric stance is passé, obsolete. You still see skill at playing the obvious, such as with Brad Oscar’s performance as “Nostradamus” in “Something Rotten,” and evil-doing can be rollicking as in “The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” but for the most part, we are doomed to directors who get away with shorthand and allow it to be enough.

That’s the problem with Gibson’s production. He stages as if the announcement of the next joke or plot detail is enough. His mounting of “Heathers: The Musical” mostly overdoes, sometimes in ways that work such as the first entrance of the Heathers doing almost a stripper’s vamp from stage left to stage center while wearing tailored suits in bright colors, often in ways that pander and work too hard at humor, as in the unnatural, exaggerated tone and accents of the Heathers’ diction.

Gibson’s production never leaves the surface, so it’s never mean or delicious enough to enjoy as a send-up of high school characters. Of the main woman characters, only Loulu Luzi’s Veronica finds the line between stereotype and believability. Luzi at least lets you see, as well as hear, what might be happening in Veronica’s head. The others are playing strictly according to type. Everything about their performance is stylized, so you never see a human peep out from the façade. Even Nate Golden’s J.D. starts out well but succumbs to the simple, untextured approach Gibson favors.

For “Heathers” to work in any form, you have to be able to go with the lead characters when they make their first foul moves and feel actual terror and revulsion as those moves take a darker, more habitually pathological, turn. You have to be able to laugh with a lump in your throat until you come to the revelation that J.D. is no laughing matter. At that point, you should feel concern while continuing to hope J.D., Veronica, and all somehow come out of spiraling calamities unscathed.

In Gibson’s production, you’re just reviled. Golden has charm, but the nakedness of J.D.’s intentions and the nonchalance with which he executes them just sours you. You don’t, for an instant, get a giddy pleasure from his murderous plots. Not even when he takes the initiative to quiet the most annoying and despotic of the Heathers.

Gibson’s production never grabs you. It doesn’t enlist you as a co-conspirator. You don’t want, as happens is some suspense thrillers, say “Double Indemnity,” for the killers to prevail. Gibson’s production never lets you see the alleged justice in J.D.’s first acts, which should be staged to seem like practical jokes gone catastrophically awry, instead of premeditated and carefully concocted commission of evil.

The sickness of Gibson’s approach is decidedly unsavory. You can’t take complicit delight in it. Satire backfires. Instead of going along with the leads, you want them stopped from the outset. You want the results of J.D.’s psychosis reversed. In a smarter, more representative production of “Heathers: The Musical,” the opposite would be true. Appalled though you might be at what occurs, a savvier production would have you applauding and even reveling in the nastiness. You should be lulled into some kind of approval until matters go too far, and approval turns to disdain. In the Vulcan Lyric staging, that disdain is immediate. There’s nowhere for the musical to go. The plot twists miscarry, and “Heathers,” rather than being shamefully wicked in an impish way, becomes tedious, boring, and unlikable. A moment here and there has some resonance, Lindsay Ronaldson, singing a plaintively positive song as the abused Martha Dunnstock, for instance, but in general, with no one whose success, or even demise, to root for, “Heathers” fails to take off and engage.

There’s a lack of definition from the start of the production. The cast, out of specific character while portraying a gaggle of teasing, taunting teens, mass to shout epithets like “fatso,” “homo,” and other expressions of affection towards one another, some in colorful language. The segment shows the bullying and abuse that goes on in a typical high school, whether aggressive or affectionate. People do, after all, walk up to friends and say lovely things like, “Hi, knucklehead,” to use one of the softer insults.

The problem is the cacophony of sneers remains just that, a cacophony. All the gibes are so raw and so random, they don’t register. This opening has to be the first joke of a series of laughs at the rough habits of high schoolers. It needs to be pointed and funny. You need to see the satire.

NealBoxGibson has staged a crowd scene. You get the gist of what’s going on, but it has no effect. It just hangs there. It’s noticeable. You know the segment’s purpose. Because it’s not performed in a sly or funny way, it establishes what it’s supposed to do in 10 seconds, after which it’s just garble. The opening number, which should be telling and set a comic tone, bores and it drones on.

Things improve somewhat as we meet the cast of characters, only because they are such recognizable types. The problem here is they are too stereotypical. The jocks are too dense and hard-headed. The nerds are too self-consciously weird. Ronaldson makes you like the sweet, overweight, Disney-loving girl, but most of the personalities do not register.

One triumph is the entrance of the Heathers. Even though all three girls look self-conscious when they should be at home in their self-proclaimed heavenliness, there is something potent in their slow stridelike vamp that announces the leaders have arrived and are taking over the proceedings.

These Heathers don’t even pretend to nice. Their expressions are scowls. They look at everyone around them with contempt. And they demand, and command, attention. The cavalry arrives when the Heathers approach, and let no dog bark lest it engender disapproval in the form of a wilting stare or flippant remark.

There’s style to this entrance, and some humor, but no wit. The Heathers should only have to show up to garner awe. They don’t have to pout or take attitude. It’s built into their beings. The comment should be as much on the cringing as it is on the Heathers for making others feel inferior.

The Heathers have to be bitchy from the get-go. They are after all, like the witches Macbeth meets of the heath. (Get it, the heath..,heathers; oh now I’m the one being self-indulgent.) They are not content to be the envy of all who are less cool. They like lording their status over others, especially the weak, vulnerable, and defenseless.

These Heathers really are despicable girls, and Gibson allows them no redeeming factors. Nor does he let them sidle into their meanness. It’s there in every eye roll, cold stare, and lip curl.

The Heathers have their effect, but they are not juicy, either as characters or adversaries. Their denigrating, disparaging ways are too broad, too distinctly pronounced, to have any humor behind them. Satire fades because these girls are authentic cats, not just symbols that make others cower and force victims into bouts of depression and self-loathing. They are active participants in their nasty work while the perception of others should be part of the joke.

Veronica represents the reasonable one in the school. She wants the Heathers’ popularity and status, but she is too warmhearted and natural to take on their cattiness. Higher values aside, Veronica will play the Heathers’ game well.

She’ll get a tailored suit the royal blue of which is more tasteful than any of theirs. She’ll put on an air or two, but she’ll do it as a charade, a means of having her social cake and be able to eat from it as well. Veronica is a Heather with a touch of irony and self-knowledge. She knows how to use the “in” crowd while being able to commune with mere mortals like her lifelong best friend, Martha, and the outsider, J.D.

Nate Golden impresses as kid who sees the way the local game is played, knows how to laugh at it and skirt it, and exist on the sidelines, barely noticed except for the ankle-length black trenchcoat that is his symbol in both the movie and the musical. That black trenchcoat has especially ominous overtones now as it was the costume donned by the two guys shot classmates and teachers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado a decade after “Heathers” became a teen movie hit.

Some scenes play evenly as Veronica tries to fit in with the Heathers and as J.D. becomes curious about the reason Veronica imitates the Heathers and seeks their friendship. Things come to head when the jocks try to attack J.D. and he shows a display of martial arts that will protect him, diminutive though Golden is, from the large big-chested athletes. That display earns Veronica’s attention as much as anything else.

Gibson keeps his production matter-of-fact as some exposition unfolds, but his “Heathers” still does not engage you. You watch to see what happens next, and how faithful the musical is to the movie, not because you’re rapt and driven to witness Veronica’s acceptance by the Heathers wearing out its welcome. Curiosity keeps you going more than the production does. Once the killings start, “Heathers” loses any interest it established, Because you never get involved with what really motivates J.D.’s ideas about justice, you are disgusted by J.D.’s acts. They do not register as fitting or funny, the way they should if Gibson knew how to tell “Heathers’s” joke. Blood and mayhem don’t impress. They gall and bore. The cast tries to entertain. Luzi and Golden provides some good sequences, more when they’re romantic than when they plotting. The scene in which they consummate their relationship sexually is one of the better done segments. Ronaldson shines in her musical number. The plot just plods. Wit is absent. No satire or send-up is discernable. Nor are traces of black comedy that have you going along with the wrongdoers because they have recruited you as a supporter or because you agree the people being eliminated deserve their fate.

There’s no guilty pleasure in this “Heathers.” Ideas that succeeded in the movie, like presenting the jocks as misunderstood gay lovers and having their fathers come together like partners at their funeral, just seem corny and disrespectful in this production. It’s not that times have changed. It’s just that Gibson failed to establish any satirical sensibility. The jokes seem lame and witless. Worst of all, from the way “Heathers” should play, you feel genuinely sorry for the dead jocks and want J.D., and even Veronica, to get caught and “go to San Quentin instead of Stanford.”

There’s the rub. The killing of the jocks, and J.D.’s betrayal of Veronica, are supposed to the keys that turn you around. The trouble is you are already turned. The first murder, of the head Heather, was not wickedly satisfying. The deaths of the jocks, annoying and stereotypically brutal as they were, just stops you from caring about anything “Heathers” has to say or show.

Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy don’t help much with songs that are more straightforward doggerel than they are clever or intelligently mocking. “Heathers” needs to have an edge along with a comic tone that makes you care less about the quality or sarcasm in lyrics than you do about the representative characters and the overall show. The only musical moment that grabs is Lindsay Ronaldson singing the delusional “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” about her dreams of being with one of the jocks who happened to kiss her once when they were age five and for whom she’s carried a torch since.

Loulu Luzi is consistent throughout the production. As Veronica, she provides one of the few cores of reality seen in Gibson’s production. Luzi maintains Veronica’s distance from the Heathers, and she shows her character’s relative normality. Luzi’s Veronica just wants to enjoy her last year of high school and not worry about Heathers or being left out of some of the occasions the Heathers control that might be fun.

In keeping with the production, Luzi’s Veronica is a tad slow in seeing through J.D. (for Juvenile Delinquent?), especially when he discussed his plan to scare the jocks, Ram and Kurt, who deserve some comeuppance after trying to molest Veronica and roughing up J.D.

Nate Golden holds his line nicely as J.D. Even when you realize the character is a homicidal maniac, a vigilante with no mercy, not even for Martha, Golden remains cucumber cool and unperturbed by the mayhem he’s caused and intends to continue.

This assurance gives Golden’s J.D. some cachet. It allows you to enjoy seeing the character even though you know he is a psychopath who needs to be stopped. You half hope Veronica’s reasoning with and regard for J.D. would change the boy’s attitude, but J.D. is as self-righteous in his judgments as the Heathers were in theirs.

Lindsay Mauck does well with two parts, that of Veronica’s mother and that of a high school counselor who wants all to go by the textbook from which she learned how to handle mass grieving and other things that might affect children. Mauck stands as a symbol of the conventional and, as the counselor, she provides the one bit of satiric bite than registers. She does it by being at ease with the character and never tipping her hand that she was doing any kind of parody or send-up.

Hanna Gaffney is hard looking at the leader of the Heathers, Heather Chandler, who will brook no disagreement or disobedience among her co-Heathers or anyone at Westerberg High. In some ways, Gaffney is too much the bully. This Heather would intimidate more subtly, like a tougher Elle from “Legally Blonde.” Softness and cheerleader pep are missing from the production. Gaffney comes across more like a mean dictator than like a girl who just happens to be the most popular and glamorous in the class.

Katie Johantgen makes the most of her chance to show a human side to Heather McNamara. Sara Moya turns out to be the most resolutely snobby Heather of all as Heather Duke.

David Schwartz has nice comic turn as J.D.’s addled dad, Bud.

Doubling as choreographer, Nate Golden plots some lively steps. The Heathers’ entrance is his best touch.

“Heathers: The Musical,” produced by Vulcan Lyric, runs through Sunday, August 16 at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $99 to $39 and can be obtained by calling 215-238-1555 or by visiting www.vulcanlyric.org.

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