When it hit cinemas in 1989, “Heathers” poured a bottle of drain cleaner down the throat of an entire decade. Dark and vicious, it was a complete reversal of the sweetly redemptive John Hughes formula. Nobody learned important lessons or found true love. They were lucky if they got out alive.
Now, “Heathers” is a musical, playing at the Unicorn Theatre’s Levin Stage through June 26. Its upbeat song-and-dance numbers and inspirational message are at odds with the story of teenagers offing their school’s popular kids. Even in its edgier moments, it’s more “Hairspray” than “Hannibal.”
Katie Karel plays Veronica Sawyer, the frustrated newest member of Westerburg High’s popular clique, the eponymous Heathers. She has a conscience, but she’s willing to compromise it for a prime seat at the lunch table. When J.D. (Thomas Delgado) enrolls, Veronica falls hard for his bad-boy act, until she finds out he’s the real psychotic deal, with a penchant for killing jocks and mean girls.
Karel bears a passing resemblance to the film’s Veronica, Winona Ryder, but she has a strong, engaging presence all her own, with a voice to match. All the actors are first-rate throughout, acing every tightly choreographed production number with the aid of a flawless house band. They do this while keeping the scene changes seamless and, in some cases, playing multiple roles.
Directors Cynthia Levin and Missy Koonce take a minimalist approach to the sets (simple and adaptable) and costumes (pretty much the same throughout), which keeps the focus on the play itself. The decade-appropriate big hair and neon colors set the tone perfectly well without the need for bells and whistles.
The songs are entertaining, if not exactly hummable, and writers Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy (who brought “Heathers” to the stage in 2014) know how to write clever lyrics. Standouts like “Beautiful” and “Big Fun” contain insights about teen angst while still maintaining a snarky sense of humor.
The appeal of an uplifting message is just too much for O’Keefe and Murphy to resist, and they slip in the kind of touchy-feely sentiment that “Heathers” was created to eviscerate.
The infamous “dead gay son” scene is turned into a PSA for inclusion and tolerance, complete with a gratuitous coming-out that undercuts the whole point. J.D. is really just a misunderstood romantic, and Delgado has the impossible task of making him threatening, yet still attractive to Veronica. Because she is always a fundamentally nice person, their relationship never quite makes sense.
“Heathers: The Musical” is great for fans of musical theater who don’t mind cussing and sex jokes with their showstoppers. For fans of “Heathers,” it can be entertaining, too, but only if they’re willing to replace the drain cleaner with a nice wine cooler.
“Heathers: The Musical” runs through June 26 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to unicorntheatre.org.