The surprising thing about Heathers: The Musical isn’t that someone made a stage musical out of the 1988 movie Heathers -- it's that it didn’t happen sooner.
And they don’t come much more beloved than Heathers, which had a huge cultural impact on a generation of 1980s teenagers and set the template for later movies about popular high school mean girls from Jawbreaker down to...well, Mean Girls.
In an Ohio high school dominated by a trio of girls all named Heather, an erstwhile nerdy young thing who’s become the Heathers’ protégé and her rebellious newcomer boyfriend discover that in order to break out of the school’s oppressive caste system, they just might have to resort to murder.
The stage version’s writer-composers, Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blonde) and Kevin Murphy (Reefer Madness), are old hands at musical adaptations of cult movies.
San Francisco’s Ray of Light Theatre performs various kinds of contemporary musicals. But the company does have a particular soft spot for perverse ones like the aforementioned Carrie and the upcoming Lizzie, about alleged ax murderer Lizzie Borden.
Ray of Light’s Bay Area premiere of Heathers: The Musical is also the show’s first regional production since its hit 2014 off-Broadway run.
As a rock musical, Heathers is flat-out delightful, with wonderfully catchy songs.
Sadistic campus queen Heather Chandler (Jocelyn Pickett) sings sneeringly of all the delights of popularity she can offer in the insidiously peppy “Candy Store.”
Our heroine, Veronica Sawyer (Jessica Quarles), cuddles up to new-in-town bad boy JD (Jordon Bridges) while he’s freeze-framed in the middle of a fistfight in the tongue-in-cheek romantic ballad “Fight for Me.”
Lunkheaded football bullies (Paul Hovannes and Nick Quintell) sing a hilariously raunchy song about their frustrated horniness (“Blue”).
There’s even a dance number miming an oral-sex threesome, pricelessly choreographed by Alex Rodriguez. If you’ve always wanted to hear the lines “swordfight in your mouth” and “I love my dead gay son” brought to life in song, this is the musical for you.
The story is necessarily streamlined to make space for the songs, and also heightened to fit the musical milieu.
Quarles’ Veronica is more of a naive ingénue archetype than Winona Ryder’s movie character. O’Keefe and Murphy take care to include as many of the screenplay’s memorable lines as possible, even if some of them have to be inserted somewhere different.
Director Erik Scanlon gives the show a dynamic staging with a lively ensemble of familiar high school types -- nerds, jocks, stoners, et cetera.
Strutting around in brightly colored matching outfits, the Heathers are well cast: Pickett’s shrilly berating alpha bitch, Samantha Rose Cardenas’ equally sociopathic but less charismatic second banana thirsting for her chance to take over, and Lizzie Moss as a needy nonentity who just goes with the flow and is lost without a leader.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Heathers: The Musical is that it’s not just perversely funny; it’s also genuinely touching in its depiction of teen angst and the struggle just to get through the hell of high school. You’d have to have the heart of a Heather not to get choked up by the end.
Heathers: The Musical runs through June 13, 2015 at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit rayoflighttheatre.com.