'Heathers' at the Beck Center Brings Rockin' Music, Teen-Aged Angst and Great Choreography

A teenaged girl snarls at another, "I know who I'm sitting with at lunch, do you?" Yes, high school can be a time of great angst or hellish glee. Depends on which clique you are in. Jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, drama-kids, brains ... what was your place in the high school hierarchy?

Veronica, a 17-year-old misfit at Westerburg [Ohio] High School, yearns to be part of the in-group — the Heathers, plural, led by head cheerleader Heather McNamara, the sullen Heather Duke and the "bitch queen," Heather Chandler. The three blond bombshells run the high school for their own enjoyment, harassment, bullying and degrading allowed.

Veronica hangs with overweight nice kid Martha Dunstock, better known as Martha Dumptruck, until one glorious day. That day Veronica's talents as a forger are discovered and the creation of hall passes and absence excuses flow forth and detentions disappear. Through forgery, Veronica becomes a Heather.

Will Veronica now become Miss Popular? Will she, after achieving her goal, turn on Martha? Will she fall for J.D., new school bad boy and become, like him, a psychopathic killer? Will idiot jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly be knocked from their stud pedestals? Will J.D. satisfy the longings for revenge of every high school outsider who was the victim of character assassination and bullying by the likes of the Heathers? Will the audience cheer when they vicariously get their settling of scores?

Yes, high school can be hell, and Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, conceivers of Heathers: The Musical, now in production at Beck Center for the Arts, have found the key to making bullying a fun, but often sadistic, form of entertainment.

Heathers has a bizarre history. A Daniel Waters-written, non-musical version was filmed in 1988 and became a cult hit. It made instant celebs of Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannen Doherty. Though not a critical hit, the film was named one of the best high school movies by Entertainment Weekly, and ranked No. 412 on Empire's list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.

The musical's start came on Sept. 13, 2010, via a concert/reading in a pub. The script languished until 2013, when it showed up for a limited engagement at Hudson Backstage Theatre in Los Angeles. And then it hit the big time in February 2014, when it opened off-Broadway for a five-month run. Since then, the script has become a favorite of community theaters looking for a device to attract younger audiences.

Beck's production, under the direction of Scott Spencer, is being staged in the intimate Studio Theatre, where it fills the space with rock sound, great singing and good acting. The star of the show, however, is Martin Céspedes' choreography.

One dynamic dance routine after another explodes. The opening "Beautiful" sets the mood and is followed by such other showstoppers as "Blue" and "Shine a Light." This is Céspedes at his finest, and it makes the production a special event.

Madeline Krucek gives just the right tone to kind Veronica, who has a strong sense of right and wrong, even if she gets waylaid for a while by bad boy JD (Shane Lonergan). She has a fine singing voice and nice stage presence. Her duets "Dead Girl Walking" and "Seventeen," sung with Lonergan, are compelling.

Lonergan, dressed in the appropriate black trench coat, doesn't look like a deadly psychopath (do they ever?), but he portrays a killer to the core. His well sung "Freeze Your Brain" gives a clue into what is going to come.

Kayla Heichel was born a "high school mean girl." This lass portrays evil, power and control with ease as the hateful H. Chandler, leader of the Heathers. She is well backed up by the other Heathers, (McNamara) Amy Kohmescher and (Duke) Tia Karaplis. They all have strong singing voices and their solos are well done.

Molly Millsaps creates Martha (Dumptruck), she of beautiful soul, with charm and pathos, in spite of teasing and rejection. Her version of "Kindergarten Boyfriend" is a wonderful ballad that gets a lovely rendition.

Riley Ewing (Ram Sweeney) and Jonathan Walker White (Kurt Kelly) are right out of the playbook: walking six-packs with no brains and lots of unbridled testosterone. The duo can actually dance, sing and act.

Matthew Wright (Ram's dad) and Paul Floriano (Kurt's dad) almost steal the show with their rendition of "My Dead Gay Son."

Multi-award winning Trad A. Burns shows his usual creativity in designing a visually and functionally perfect mock-locker filled set. His lighting design, along with Aimee Kluiber's costumes, helps in creating the right illusions.

Musical director Larry Goodpaster and his band do a great job of hitting all the right notes and supporting instead of drowning out the singers.

Editor's Note: Scene theater critic Christine Howey was awarded a 13-week summer residency in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She began her summer on the East Coast this week and will return in late August. In the meantime, Roy Berko and a few others will be covering Northeast Ohio's theater in the mag and online. Roy is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the Cleveland Critics Circle. HEATHERS: THE MUSICal

Through July 2 at the Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org

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