OB Playhouse & Theatre Co. turns the midwestern high school experience fiendishly upside down with its splendid production of “Heathers The Musical,” a 2013 show by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy based on the cult film “Heathers” from 1988. While not as relentlessly dark as its cinematic inspiration, “Heathers The Musical” traffics unapologetically in murder, attempted suicide, nihilism and the grimmest facets of teen angst – all elements that made Daniel Waters’ movie that starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater so memorable.
But the stage musical, directed at OB Playhouse by Manny Bejarano, relies more on anarchic spirit and often-profane parody than on the schematics of the original film. Its poppy score flits from purposely outrageous or sassy ensemble numbers to tortured balladry, and the recurring anthem “Seventeen” somehow ties it all together.
The likable Kate McNellen portrayed Veronica Sawyer, the insecure girl who initially befriends the uber-popular but mean-spirited Heathers, in OnStage Playhouse’s production of “Heathers The Musical” two years ago in Chula Vista. She reprises the central role now in Ocean Beach, with Hunter Brown brooding and dangerous as JD, the disturbed young man she falls for, and Kylie Young, Alexis Dytko and Tyra Carter playing the mini-skirted Heathers. The large cast is aptly costumed and coiffed to represent the “types” in a high school population, and Michael Mizerany’s athletic choreography has them moving with the precision of a fevered pep rally.
The OB Playhouse is limited in performance space, but the actors are freed from the stage and placed within the crowd throughout – an immersive device. A four-piece band led by Ian Brandon sometimes overwhelms the vocals, though this is probably more a consequence of the Newport Avenue theater’s acoustics.
Then there’s the audience. OB Playhouse’s crowds – young, enthusiastic, ready to party – are unlike any others in town, which makes a show here a good-time experience. Even one as wink-wink subversive as “Heathers The Musical.”
Fittingly, it was announced on opening night that those who attend the performance of “Heathers The Musical” on Halloween Night are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite Heather.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/23/19.)
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.