Heathers the Musical

Hayes Theatre Co, July 20

Lucy Maunder (centre) flanked by Libby Asciak and Erin Clare. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Lucy Maunder (centre) flanked by Libby Asciak and Erin Clare. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Based on the cult 1988 film starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, Heathers the Musical, which premiered off-Broadway last year, is a black comedy with a catchy, upbeat pop-rock score: think Grease meets Mean Girls with a decidedly dark twist.

Westerburg High is ruled by a triumverate of beautiful but cruel girls all called Heather. Cross them and you’ll find yourself in the social equivalent of Siberia, or worse. But when the Heathers enlist former misfit Veronica Sawyer for her forgery skills, they take on more than they’d bargained for with Veronica’s avenging boyfriend Jason ‘J.D.’ Dean prepared to go to deadly extremes.

Written by Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blonde) and Kevin Murphy, the musical sticks closely to the screenplay though it isn’t quite so dark. The show’s gear changes between satire, camp comedy, blithe sentimentality and dark themes (teenage suicide, school massacres, bullying, homophobia) crunch a bit at times ­– or would do if the production were not so good. But here, first-time director Trevor Ashley negotiates them with assurance, flair and a sure-fire sense of comedy.

Ashley’s high-energy production leaps off the stage at you. With the cast all turning in full-bore performances, it does a great job of walking the fine line between being knowing, tongue-in-cheek and just serious enough. The musical could do with a little tightening at times but Ashley never allows it to flag. It’s a very impressive directorial debut from a man who is also playing Thenardier in Les Misérables at the same time.

Jaz Flowers is sensational as Veronica, giving a winning, emotionally believable performance that brings surprising depth to the role. She also sings the hell out of her songs. Lucy Maunder is hilariously funny as queen bitch Heather Chandler, showing what fine comic chops she has. Her raised eyebrows are eloquent as anything, her death stare is scary, while her singing is gorgeous.

Stephen Madsen and Jaz Flowers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Stephen Madsen and Jaz Flowers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Among the rest of the terrific cast, Lauren McKenna shines in the double role of the bullied Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock and loopy New Age teacher Ms Fleming. Stephen Madsen brings a brooding charisma and cool detachment to the Baudelaire-quoting, psychopathic J.D. and has a lovely voice. Vincent Hooper and Jakob Ambrose are very funny as dim-witted jocks Ram and Kurt, while Erin Clare and Libby Asciak give broadly comic but well-defined performances as Heather Chandler’s side-kicks.

Emma Vine’s compact, clever set design, consisting primarily of school lockers, is well used by Ashley, who keeps the action pumping with sharply choreographed scene changes. Angela White has fun with the 1980s costuming and Cameron Mitchell’s superb, witty choreography is also bang on target.

The night I saw it the sound was somewhat out of whack with the band (led by musical director Bev Kennedy) so loud that the cast struggled to compete at times, though I gather that has now been sorted. Aside from that, it’s a first-rate production and extremely entertaining.

Heathers the Musical plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until August 9. It is sold out though I’m told they may try to add a couple of performances. Check the website http://www.hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 26

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The Credeaux Canvas

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, February 3

James Wright and Felix Johnson. Photo: supplied

James Wright and Felix Johnson. Photo: supplied

In his program notes, Les Solomon recalls producing the Australian premiere of Keith Bunin’s 2001 play The Credeaux Canvas at the Stables Theatre 14 years ago, having seen it not long before in New York.

Apparently the production (which I didn’t see) was a huge hit, breaking box office records. That doubtless emboldened him to produce the play again now, this time with Bryce Hallett, though there seems no compelling reason to do so.

The play has an entertaining enough plot – though it does rather peter out towards the end. But it doesn’t have the emotional depth for its characters and themes to make a terribly strong impact.

Set in a grotty attic apartment on New York’s Eastside, the play focuses on three struggling young people.

Winston (James Wright) is an artist finishing his MA. He is clearly passionate about art – and about obscure French artist Jean-Paul Credeaux, in particular – though whether he has what it takes to become a significant artist himself is questionable. At this point anyway, his work is derivative, with “come back in five years” the common response from those in the know.

Winston shares the flat with Jamie (Felix Johnson), who has fallen foul of his well-off art dealer father and is working in real estate, which he hates. Also there on a regular basis is Amelia, Jamie’s girlfriend (Emilie Cocquerel), who has come to New York with dreams of being a singer but who finds herself waiting tables and performing at ever more crummy, far-flung venues.

Jamie has just attended the reading of his father’s will and is livid to learn he has been left nothing. On the way home, however, he bumped into Tess (Carmen Duncan), a very wealthy art collector, who was a client of his father’s and a scam suggested itself to him.

Jamie has told Tess that his father left him a lost Credeaux from the artist’s moonlit nude series. Winston will paint a fake work in the style of Credeaux with Amelia as his subject. Tess, who he disses as having more money than art sense, will be taken in and pay them a fortune.

Winston and Amelia eventually agree. To put Amelia at her ease, Winston disrobes as well, leading to a sexual triangle. (There is also a brief hint that Winston may be attracted to Jamie.) What unfolds will sorely test all of them.

James Wright, Felix Johnson and Emilie Cocquerel. Photo: supplied

James Wright, Felix Johnson and Emilie Cocquerel. Photo: supplied

Bunin doubtless means to explore the nature of fraud and fakery as it relates to the characters as well as the canvas in question. Do any of them have the talent to achieve their dreams? Are they deluding themselves? What is the true nature of the various relationships between them? But though the dialogue zips along, there isn’t enough in the writing to convincingly examine this in any depth and the production doesn’t bring the kind of nuance that might expand on it and further illuminate the subtext.

It should be noted that there were setbacks during rehearsals. Director Ross McGregor (who directed Solomon’s earlier production) came in at fairly late notice, as did Duncan.

Performances aside, some of the play is overwritten, particularly the swathes of talk about art (which comes across mainly as the writer showing that he knows what he’s talking about).

There’s a terrific design from Emma Vine and strong moments from all the performers – Cocquerel is particularly impressive – but overall not enough subtext, nuance and emotional depth for the play to really fire.