If I were producing a musical version of the darkly comedic film "Heathers," there are two guys I would have turned to in a New York minute to write the show: Laurence O'Keefe (of Bat Boy and Legally Blonde fame) and Kevin Murphy (Reefer Madness and the TV show "Desperate Housewives"). Bat Boy is both wildly funny and remarkably tuneful, and Reefer Madness, while flawed, has some hilarious set pieces and some genuinely memorably songs.
So I can totally understand why the producers of Heathers: The Musical would think they had a slam dunk on their hands. Unfortunately, Heathers, currently playing an open-ended run at Off-Broadway's New World Stages, while sporadically amusing, is wildly uneven as both a piece and a production, despite a decidedly talented cast, led by Barrett Wilbert Weed as Veronica and Ryan McCartan as J.D.
Heathers begins with an extended opening number that's meant to set the sardonic tone of the show, and the number is certainly rhythmic, but it is also tuneless. As the show progresses, the music gets downright ugly at times, which I suppose could be a choice on the creators' part, but it didn't make for a pleasant listening experience. The score for Heathers does feature one fairly decent song, called "Seventeen," which is a plea from the female lead to go back to being just another teenager.
Heathers could have worked as a musical based on a strong, funny libretto and sharp, comedic direction. But the night I saw the show, only about half of the intended humor was landing, despite an audience comprising a large number of diehard fans of the movie and a passel of incipient groupies for the stage version. I haven't seen the movie since it came out in 1989, and it appeared that some of the humor depended on one's memory of the movie. (For instance, the would-be humorous references to Corn Nuts.)
The first act of the show, despite the failed comedic bits, was certainly never dull. However, the second act became rather attenuated. (Should any entry into the genre of the campy Off-Broadway bloodbath ever be more than one act? Or longer than ninety minutes?) Act two also features a rather jarring shift in tone. Characters start singing extremely serious songs, devoid of irony, and the songs don't mesh with the rest of the score. The show then bumbles and sputters until the memorably dark finish, which partially redeems the show with its swift pacing and comparatively effective balance of drollery and pathos.
Perhaps a firmer hand at the helm might have made the difference. The director here is Andy Fickman, who also directed Reefer Madness, a production that had similar problems with consitency and pacing. Fickman's work on Heathers features some rather static staging and awkward comic business, amid fleeting moments of effectiveness. I have to wonder how well the show would have worked with, say, Scott Schwartz as director. Schwartz did such a masterful job with Bat Boy, and is currently represented at the New World Stages by Murder for Two, the charm and humor of which owes a great deal to Mr. Schwartz.
So, what's your damage, Heathers? A tuneless score, a middling book, and slack direction. (Well, f*** me gently with a chainsaw. Do I look like Mother Teresa?)