‘Heathers the Musical’: Love and Light Productions finds challenge, relevance in stage version of cult ’80s film

From left, Kylie Bumbarger, Cat Rokavec and Veronica Auger are the Heathers in Love and Light Productions’ “Heathers the Musical.”
From left, Kylie Bumbarger, Cat Rokavec and Veronica Auger are the Heathers in Love and Light Productions’ “Heathers the Musical.” Photo provided

Anyone who has ever harbored a secret belief that show tunes would have made high school a kinder, friendlier place to be is in for a rude awakening.

The stage version of the 1989 cult classic film, “Heathers the Musical,” still features the meanest collection of cliques this side of the cafeteria — only now they’re at least singing in harmony.

Dealing with an assortment of vicious creatures looking to draw blood wasn’t exactly a departure for married duo Alicia Starr and Gregory Mudzinski. As the founders of Love and Light Productions, they’ve mounted local stage adaptions of such monstrous fare as “The Evil Dead” and “The Rocky Horror Show.” On Friday evening the curtain will part on their most frightening beast yet — adolescence.

“It has a very real problem that exists in the world — bullying,” Starr said.

The very real problems that faced most characters of teen movies of the late 1980s had to do with unrequited love or being the low rung on the social hierarchy. “Heathers,” which featured twisted these themes into a dark satire that focused on man’s inhumanity to man, aiming for dark humor that didn’t forgo harsh truths.

The musical, with a book by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, closely follows the story of the film: Veronica Sawyer has finally ascended to the peak of her high school’s social hierarchy, a trio of popular femme fatales known as the Heathers, who happen to be completely toxic. As Veronica struggles to claw her way free of their nefarious influence, she becomes swept away in a cycle of violence and cruelty that seems to have infected the entire school.

Starr said she and Mudzinski are always on the lookout for new and edgy adult musicals they can bring to the stage, and “Heathers” — with all of its jagged edges — provided acoustic and storytelling challenges that they had never faced before.

“The show is the hardest show we’ve ever done,” Starr said.

For starters there’s the story’s tightrope walk of a tone — a blend of heightened melodrama, violence and, perhaps most importantly, comedy. As director, Starr said she worked to maintain the right balance to avoid sacrificing the narrative’s ultimate message — a sincere plea amid utter satire for people to be just a little better to one another.

“I think it’s very important that we take a step back and look at what we’ve done and what we can do,” Starr said.

Melodic support

According to Mudzinski, music has been a crucial component in layering the emotions and subext on stage.

As Love and Light’s musical director and resident guitar player Mudzinski, and his five-piece band will lend the actors and the story melodic support. He said he believes that hitting the right notes can take some of the narrative weight off dialogue or lyrics.

“It helps you understand. If we were to do it without vocals, the music very much portrays how you’re supposed to to feel,” Mudzinski said.

Operating in a rock band format without the use of a conductor requires the musicians to use subtle musical cues to communicate. Striking a chord too early can step on a moment or wreak havoc with timing.

“The music is very complex but the cast and the band are so talented that we’re able to do it,” Mudzinski said.

Past perspective

For actress Rachael Ruhl, the most challenging aspect of the production wasn’t the score, but spending a few months back in high school.

Ruhl first watched the film iteration of “Heathers” with her mother when she was 16 years old. She appreciated the film’s sly and shady wit and its ability to address many of the same issues that she was grappling with as a teenager.

Landing the lead role of Veronica gave her the opportunity to revisit the past from the perspective of an adult.

“It really gave me the chance to exorcise a lot of ghosts,” Ruhl said.

Still, she was careful not to become too immersed in the teenage anxieties that plague her adolescent character. She said she prefers instead to focus on the musical’s hopeful finish, which stands in sharp relief to the nightmarish high school landscape that served as its backdrop.

“It doesn’t have to be like that. It can be beautiful if you stick together,” Ruhl said.