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Sydney Opera House in association with Showwork present, HEATHERS – The Musical. Book, Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, based on the film by Daniel Waters, in The Playhouse, at the Sydney Opera HOUSE, 8 June – 26 June, 2016.

HEATHERS – The Musical by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, based on the 1990 film, written by Daniel Waters, and starring 16 year old Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, was a complete surprise for me. I had never seen the cult film set in the grossness of 1980’s fashion with all the horrors of American High School behaviours of bullying, sexual harassment, alcohol, drug abuse and suicide and murder rampantly magnified into an over-the-top subversive, and thoroughly ‘nasty’ piece of comic satire, with an in-yer-face morality, completely ‘modern’ and strictly alternative. To think that the Squabbalogic production of the THE ORIGINAL GREASE was thought to be a rough and ready musical theatre reality of some daring! NOT, after watching HEATHERS, for sure.

The Book and the Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe, especially, are arresting in their daringly out-there sweep. The cruelty, viciousness and just straight-out dire nature of the material, the what some of have called ‘darkness’ of the material, does not seem too far beyond the reality of the real world but is so far from the usual ‘naughty-naughty’ reality of film or musical theatre culture that it takes one’s breath away in a bracing blast of fresh air of unflinching hyper-reality, so that laughter and cautious recognition is really the only response that one can have – unless you have grown up in a completely cotton-wooled environment. The over-the-top twists and turns of the story may be too many to completely believe could all happen in the one place but if the work is an intense choosing of many episodes from many locations, then Westerburg High is not, unfortunately, too far fetched. This is the way it is for the bullied, I can assure you.

Hilary Cole, as Veronica Sawyer, the voyager, our voyager, through the rough and tumble of the high school student politics at Westerburg, charts a clear and thoughtfully prepared trajectory, for the audience to identify and experience the ups-and-downs of the ‘battlefield’ of this peculiarity. The interior life, created for Veronica, is active and startlingly clear alongside the in-the-moment- responses of the literal happenings – Ms Cole’s acting ‘chops’ matched by a wonderful vocal instrument of great subtly, power and range of expression highlights this performance as one to treasure to have witnessed. Ms Cole, made an impression in CARRIE, THE MUSICAL, and continues to grow impeccably from offer to offer. Keep an eye out for her next outing.

Great support, too, comes from Lucy Maunder, as Heather Chandler, leading her ‘gang’ (and later spectrally haunting Veronica): Rebecca Hetherington (Heather McNamara) and Hannah Fredericksen (Heather Duke). Stephen Madsen seems to be channeling a psychotic Neo (THE MATRIX) and grows into an impassioned force of ‘harm’ as J.D. While Vincent Hopper (Ram Sweeney), and especially the lithesome Jacob Ambrose (Kurt Kelly), score wonderful moments of unforgettable ‘evil’ and hilarity, no less as the sons, but also as their fathers, when they get to perform the unforgettably ‘wicked’, My Dead Gay Son. Special note should be made of Lauren McKenna in the contrasting dual role of school ‘victim’, Martha, and the ‘kooky’ hippie-schoolteacher with all of the latest ‘speak therapy’ at hand, Mrs Fleming. It is a clever doubling, that is daring in its combination and is wonderfully managed with the professional cool of a very skilful artist. In fact, this production is stacked with some very exciting talent.

All the company are committed to the ‘selling’ of this production and are ‘drilled’ with meticulous care in not only the vital choreography (Cameron Mitchell) but also in the swift shifting of Design features of the set to create the many and varied locations of the story. Emma Vine has Set Designed a spacious area for the action of the play to take off with ease with a keen eye for the broad detail necessary to locate for the audience the world and tone of the work. Angela White as had some fun in re-creating the period look of the ’80’s in all of its glorious grotesqueness – no one will want to keep these costumes after the show ends! Gavan Swift creates the Lighting to help focus the events of the play.

All of this is Directed by Trevor Ashley, in his debut as Director. He manages it with great aplomb. His experience as one of Australia’s leading Musical Theatre/Cabaret stars, counts in his impeccable judgement about how far to underline the already outrageous material. It is the restraint that he has employed that is striking and his comprehension that the ‘speed’ of the production is the primary element that keeps this work breathlessly acceptable – we have no time to judge the inappropriateness or otherwise of the details of the Book and the Lyrics. It is a triumph of ‘good taste’ – who would have thought? – I cannot really forget Mr Ashley’s cabaret show FAT SWAN when I write that! Although, one should never forget Mr Ashley’s near genius in his creation: I’M EVERY WOMAN, which I saw, too, at the Sydney Opera House. Amazing night!

Bev Kennedy manages the propulsion of the Music score and supports the performers well. There is reasonable balance with the Sound design by Evan Drill, particularly as the speed and ‘noise’ of the musical demands is constant. It is the Music score, that although it carries the show, becomes simply a backing to the lyrics and the drama/comedy of the story, and, to my ears, not sufficiently interesting to carry away afterwards. It is the impression I have of this ‘rock’ genre of Musical Theatre, that it is fairly generic in its structures and comes to all sound the same with the same patterns of musical construct. In this case with HEATHERS, it is the lyric originality that one delights in and takes away as the memorable aspect of the performance. I do wish the songs , however, were more tuneful so that I could whistle a new happy tune throughout my new day. What is it that a rock Musical like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, has that I can conjure up some of its tunes, all these years later, even when the lyrics have vanished? I wish that there was more, here, of whatever it is that JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR had. Tunes? (the old protest, I guess).

HEATHERS, in The Playhouse, is a confronting but wickedly astringent time in the theatre. The bullying and sexual harassment in some of our own educational institutions are drawn into a spotlight of cause and effect for us to contemplate. If you are easily shocked – don’t go. But if you are stimulated by a courageous and an unblinking look at elements of contemporary life that we would rather not recognise or remember, then it will be both an education and, thankfully, an entertainment.

A surprise that was worth facing the chaos of the VIVID Festival horror to get to.