Review: “Heathers” Returns as a Musical, and it's Very … Different

“Heathers,” a musical comedy based on the 1989 film about a clique of domineering high schoolers, is a pleasant confection with little of the edge or angst you remember from the movie. At best, this adaptation, now open at New World Stages, is a chance to relive dozens of memorable quips that gave the celluloid “Heathers” its anti-“Breakfast Club” street cred.

Writers Lawrence O’Keefe (“Legally Blonde”) and Kevin Murphy (“Reefer Madness”) cram in oodles of the biting phrases you’ve been quoting for a quarter-century, from “What’s your damage?” to “It’ll be very.” But their cast is so gee-willikers adorable that the story has evolved from a dark parable into something that borders on send-up and satire.

“Heathers” arrives in New York with its two leads intact from a 2013 Los Angeles premiere (a concert presentation was done in 2010 at Joe’s Pub, where an early version of one song, “My Dead Gay Son,” had an early audience). It’s directed by Andy Fickman, who also made the Billy Crystal film “Parental Guidance.”

An opening song, “Beautiful,” introduces us to the students of Westerburg High, which is ruled by a shoulder-padded junta of mean girls, who refer to themselves as Heathers. Just as in the film, the Heathers here comprise two blondes and a brunette (Jessica Keenan Wynn, Elle McLemore and Alice Lee). If this is your introduction to the story, sarcastic misfit Veronica Sawyer (Barrett Wilbert Weed) feels compelled to fit in with the evil trio at first, but then meets a brooding miscreant named J.D. (Ryan McCartan), who has his own plans in store for the threesome.

As Veronica, the talented Weed (“Lysistrata Jones”) transitions in the early moments of the musical from an ordinary high schooler, with friends such as poor overweight Martha Dunnstock (or, “Dumptruck,” to the jocks on the football team), into a lemming at the beck-and-call of the annoying Heathers.

Weed is an impressive singer, but don’t come in expecting a tribute to Winona Ryder, whom it’s almost impossible to separate from this endeavor, at least in my mind. Temperament-wise, Weed reminded me more of Cobie Smulders’ Robin Scherbatsky, on “How I Met Your Mother.” You never for a minute think she’s going to accompany gangly Jason “J.D.” Dean on his nefarious mission.

McCartan’s J.D. is a puppy dog-faced outsider, and while he’s not as strong a singer as his co-star, he’s got plenty of charisma. It seems odd that producers would lean toward a Disney actor for such a role (he’s Maddie’s love interest on TV’s “Liv and Maddie”), and it’s even more jarring to think there was a time we were entertained by the idea of an armed teenager wandering high school halls in a black trench coat.

Weed and McCartan share a ballad, “Seventeen,” that’s one of the sweet spots in the show.

As Heather Chandler—the alpha-Heather, as it were—Wynn (“Les Miserables”) is devilishly smug and catty. J.D. poisons her with drain cleaner, and we only wish there had been a breakaway glass table on stage to enhance her death scene as she moans “Corn Nuts” and then collapses. As weak-kneed Heather McNamara, actress McLemore displays impressive comedic chops, particularly as she chats with Veronica in a school bathroom amid a failed suicide attempt in the second act.

The high school jocks Ram and Kurt, played by Jon Eidson and Evan Todd, get the musical’s most memorable song, “Blue,” a tribute to sexual frustration. Here, the boys may have been falsely identified as gay by J.D. and Veronica, but it turns out their dads (Tony winner Anthony Crivello, of “Kiss of the Spider-Woman, and Daniel Cooney, of “Mamma Mia!) have a shared past no one knew about. “My Dead Gay Son” is the fathers’ second-act showstopper.

Indeed, it’s armchair entertainment to sit through “Heathers” and try to spot differences between the show and the movie: the party at which Veronica memorably upchucks onto Heather’s shoes doesn’t take place at a college. Also, here, even if you’re dead, you can still come back as a Greek chorus.

“Heathers” is a nostalgia trip with a decidedly more hopeful slant than its source material. There are lunchtime polls on stage … and Big Fun T-shirts for sale in the theater lobby. That great “chainsaw” line is sneaked in there, too, and it wins a boatload of laughs in the theater. You were expecting something pitch black and morbid in a musical about suicide, school shootings and hidden bombs? So what—did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?

“Heathers: The Musical,” through Sept. 7 at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St. Tickets: $50-$95.50. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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