On any given day, a student wandering into Vilas Hall might encounter a communication arts class, or potentially a student organization tucked away in a classroom. On the night of April 14, 2022, however, those who entered the glass doors of Ronald E. Mitchell Theatre were transported directly into the chaotic universe that is Westerberg High School.
At approximately 7 p.m., 271 excited audience members filed into the small but inviting space located within the labyrinth of Vilas, and a light hum of anticipation hovered among the plush red seats.
From the get-go, the stage immersed its viewers with curiosity, as it consisted almost completely of two tall staircases and a large posting of the infamous high school’s logo, which — if examined closely — resembled the scope of a pistol. Whether this was an intentional use of stage design freedom or not, its relevance to the story about to be played out is ironic, much like the majority of the cult classic musical’s script.
Prior to the show, the entirety of the stage was bathed in an ambient red light, and the sound production team teased the audience with silly melodies composed of descending piano notes backed by the occasional beat of percussion, delivering an almost chilling sense of suspense. By the time the unmistakable shrill of a school bell cut through the theater, the audience was itching in their seats, as this would be the debut showing of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama’s production of “Heathers the Musical.”
Successfully creating an adaptation of “Heathers the Musical” takes guts: the well-known dark comedy has an infamously ludacris plot that incorporates numerous controversial and adult themes. These themes include homophobia, murder, suicide and sex, as well as R-rated language scattered within foul punchlines. As a result of this, past adaptations of this musical have received an overwhelming amount of dissatisfaction from critics due to the fast-paced and inconclusive nature of the plot. Many believe that the script speeds past important lessons involving homophobia and classism, leaving the audience with discomfort and a lack of closure. As a viewer (not a Broadway critic), however, I disagree. The production had the perfect ratio of comedy to morbidity, drawing genuine reactions from the well-invested audience. Whilst setting forth the same horrific plot as the blockbuster film, the production crew incorporated a thrilling music score and intimacy between the cast and the audience to create a show well worth watching.
From beginning to end, the 20 cast members delivered lines effortlessly and constructed unique adaptations of their respective characters through dramatics, vocal expression and eccentric costume design. Veronica, for example, was portrayed as the witty and tortured protagonist that has made her mark on the entertainment industry since the release of the film “Heathers” in 1989; however, the very talented Caroline Hansen performed the character as spunky and relatable, yielding many a laugh from the audience. During a slow-motion fight scene that followed JD’s initial entrance onto the stage, a blushing Veronica turned to the audience and sighed, “Why when you see boys fight does it look so horrible yet ... feel so right?”
The show flowed effortlessly from scene to scene, and — despite the director’s pre-show claim that that night’s preview would resemble a dress rehearsal — cast members navigated difficult songs, choreography and a complicated storyline with ease.
The production involved a number of memorable scenes. Among these, Ms. Fleming’s performance of “Shine A Light” allowed for a short interaction with the audience. During this, a host of sparkly suit-clad cast members illuminated a few audience members under flashlights, expressing pointed glares at the line “So Steve! I'm ending our affair!” Ms. Fleming performed the song comfortably. She used her time with the microphone to entertain the crowd with her campy take on a well-meaning but heavily misguided school counselor. Additionally, Michael Decker won the crowd over with his portrayal of the marginally off-his-rocker new guy in town, JD. Throughout performances of “Seventeen” and “Meant to Be Yours,” Decker’s remarkable vocals and acting successfully depicted his character’s unrelenting dark side that ultimately steered the plot toward murder and chaos.
The Department of Theatre and Drama has successfully pulled off a trial run of their production of “Heathers the Musical,” and with seven more sold out shows, it can only go up from here. Despite the relatively underwhelming size of the theater and the controversy that so often surrounds the story, the production team’s otherworldly vocals and the use of lighting and sound effects proved this production fit for a much bigger stage.