‘Heathers: The Musical’ is a dark, hilarious take on the cult classic

For the past several years, Doctuh Mistuh Productions, led by award-winner Michael McKelvey, has been bringing Austinites some of the best cult musicals around, and have gained heavy praise in the process. Just last year, their production of Silence: The Musical, a campy, musical rendition of Silence of the Lambs, won the B. Iden Payne Award for Best Musical, and with their latest, they might be on the path for a repeat. Bringing together the talented writers and musicians behind the much acclaimed “Legally Blonde: the Musical” and “Reefer Madness: The Musical”, “Heathers: the Musical” brings the cult classic film to life on stage, complete with all the sass, sex, and violence that made the original film so fun, with the addition of some tunes you’ll be humming for days (though you may not want to sing them in mixed company).

“Heathers: The Musical” follows high school outcast Veronica, and her rise and fall from popularity at the hands of a popular group of girls called The Heathers. Soon, the play becomes a tale of bloody, and bloody hilarious, revenge, that goes down dark avenues while still maintaining a natural, if crude, sense of humor.

There’s a lot of pressure on anyone who takes up the role of Veronica, as Winona Ryder made the role one of the most iconic of the decade in the original film. Luckily, Aline Mayagoitia brings an everywoman charm to the role, her vulnerability and earnestness helping us to empathize with her plight. As the play swings wildly into broad humor and parody, in many ways Veronica helps to keep us grounded, and Mayagoitia’s performance absolutely succeeds in that, while still giving us plenty of moments that are simply a delight to watch.

Few roles have fit Gray Randolph’s punk rock aesthetic better than the bad-boy JD, as he seems born to play the trench-coat clad misanthrope, a character made famous by Christian Slater in the original film. He also shines musically here, hitting one his career-best musical moments in the show-stopping duet “Seventeen”, where his vocal honesty rips right into your heart, creating an emotionally relevant moment in a play where dark humor rules the roost.

The highlight of the show is the trio of loveliness that is The Heathers. While they could very easily become a homogenous whole in the wrong hands, here each of the Heathers bring something wholly different to the table. Heather McNamara is played with surprising sensitivity by Kassiani Menas, who manages to pull off her harsher edges while still making us believe her pain later in the show, particularly during her soulful, late-show number “Lifeboat”. Heather Duke, on the other hand, is played with brassy cruelty by Celeste Castillo, with everything from her stance to her facial expressions selling the invidious nastiness, while also exuding a sensuality that’s hard to ignore.

The real star of the trio, however, is Taylor Bryant as Heather Chandler. She positively glows on stage, seeming to pull every source of light straight to herself the moment she appears on stage. Bryant carries herself with the poise and presence of an old hand, despite her young age, imbuing her role with an cutting edge, while at the same time, making Heather Chandler undeniably likable. It’s professionalism all the way down, and a performance worthy of the biggest stages.

With pitch-black humor, top tier performances, and surprisingly catchy tunes, “Heathers: The Musical” is yet another polished, pitch-perfect production this year for Michael McKelvey, whose acclaimed production of “Chicago” is barely off stage over at Austin Playhouse. It may not be a play for children, or those who can’t handle a little raunch and rowdiness, but any fan of the original film will find plenty to love in this crystallized piece of musical marvelousness.

“Heathers: The Musical” is playing at the Salvage Vanguard through July 11th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Doctuh Mistuh’s website at doctuhmistuh.org

Photo Courtesy of Doctuh Mistuh Productions

‘The Strangerer’ is a heady, hilarious look at politics and death

Sometimes, a company and a writer just click. Hyde Park has done wonders with the work of Conor McPherson and Annie Baker, Maksym Kurochkin and Breaking String are a marriage made in heaven, and Capital T makes Mickle Maher’s work sing like no other, creating glittering wonders from the writer’s unique gems, including award-winning productions of “Spirits to Enforce” and “There is a Happiness That Morning Is”. With “The Strangerer”, the latest marriage of Maher and Capital T, we find a stripped down, more focused story at the heart of the play, following what happens when the philosophies of Albert Camus and the turbulent days of 2004 politics are thrown into an aging blender. It’s a lumpy, bizarre mash, but always a compelling watch.

To truly appreciate Mickle Maher’s “The Strangerer”, it’s important that one first has a basic understanding of the work of Albert Camus. Themes, ideas, and even plot lines from Camus’ books bob and weave through Maher’s piece, and though there is some information is the playbill’s foreword, it would be greatly beneficial for an audience member to at least familiarize themselves with The Stranger, the Plague, and the Fall. Even the most ardent fan of Camus may find themselves at a loss, however, if they don’t remember the political climate of 2004. It was a time of heavy doubt and fear, making it oddly fertile soil for Camus’ ideas to germinate in.

Though he shares the stage with some fine actors, “The Strangerer” is truly a testament to the talent of Robert Pierson. The role demands that the actor walk a fine line, bringing out the humorous personality and foibles of our 43rd president, while never playing him off as simply a joke. After all, there is some very cerebral material coming out of the mouth of Bush here, and it has to be believable, despite the constant spoonerisms, pauses, and vocal stumbles. Pierson is able to play up the buffoonery and bring the laughs in droves, while also selling the more potent passages, creating something textured and prismatic, and riveting to watch.

On the other side of the spectrum, Ken Webster utilizes his ability to portray subtle emotion with skillful nuance in his taciturn performance as John Kerry, who is not prone to the wild fits of fancy of his opponent, keeping his emotions more locked in. Throughout the play, Webster barely moves a muscle, but there is often a tumult behind his eyes, a cadence of speech belies a multitude of emotions. Through it all, there’s an icy coldness to the performance, a creeping dread that we just can’t shake as his sad, motionless eyes stare out at something on the horizon.

“The Strangerer” is a bizarre piece, and could at times even be considered difficult, but it never strays too far into intellectualism that it forgets it’s a comedy. It tempers its ideas with real laughs, and the setting makes that perfect, whether it be Bush’s constant stumbles or Kerry’s tendency to fall asleep standing up. Indeed, under the firm, intelligent hand of director Mark Pickell, “The Strangerer” hits a nice balance of intelligence and wit, leaving you with a few belly laughs, a lot to think about, and plenty to talk about over the days that follow. It may take a little research to truly appreciate, and it may help to bring your thinking cap, but for those coming into this production with open minds, they’ll find a wildly original piece performed with polished precision by a trio of Austin’s best.

Photo Courtesy of Capital T Theatre