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Performing Arts

Satire stings: ‘Heathers’ and America’s great divide

“Heathers: The Musical” is being staged now at the MainStage Theatre at Fort Lewis College. (Courtesy)
Musical being staged at FLC’s MainStage Theatre.

If you’re up for a rousing intergenerational argument, go see “Heathers: The Musical” at Fort Lewis College. Part of a trilogy of theatrical presentations staged by Durango Theatreworks this summer, “Heathers” follows “Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Under the leadership of Michael McKelvey, Theatreworks has accomplished a minor miracle by quickly mounting three substantial productions. It’s barely mid-summer, and yet McKelvey has met six stated goals: enhance the relationship between the college and the community, provide employment, offer a safe space for theater artists to practice their craft, provide “a wide range of theater,” establish community outreach and “increase the visibility of Durango as a center for the arts in the Four Corners region.”

By concluding with a controversial musical, McKelvey has also set the stage, so to speak, for an ongoing town-and-gown dialogue about the meaning and relevance of live theater.

If you go

WHAT: Durango Theatreworks, Fort Lewis College, “Heathers: The Musical,” a dark comedy by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, directed by Michael McKelvey.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. July 14, 15, 16 and 2 p.m. July 17.

WHERE: MainStage Theatre, Drama Building, FLC, 1000 Rim Drive.

TICKETS: $20 to $32, available online at https://bit.ly/3aykq1q. Plenty of free parking.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.durangotheatreworks.org and www.durangoconcerts.com.

“Heathers: The Musical” is based on the 1989 cult film “Heathers,” written by Daniel Waters as an antidote to sugary teen movies. It is a cynical story about high school as a metaphor for American hypocrisy. Its themes center on status, homophobia and cruelty culminating in suicide and murder. Shocking in its time, the film appeared a decade before the 1999 Columbine shooting. Despite the climate of the time, the musical version went forward in 2014, after the massacre at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14, 2012. Is it any wonder that a pair of young satirists turned on their homeland and its changing mores?

As a caution, McKelvey put a short statement in the program: “Heathers is a work of satirical theatre with a dark tint, which contains mature themes, situations, and subject matter. Among these are gun violence and teenage suicide.”

That said, the work itself is probably the darkest musical you may ever see. Consequently, it’s important to separate production values from the content for review purposes. The company has mounted an energetic and polished production. McKelvey’s creative staging and Alison Thomas-Visgar’s inventive choreography work in tandem to drive the story forward, alternating small and intense scenes with high voltage crowd scenes. The cast as a whole performs well. Siena Widen’s spot-on interpretation of Heather wannabe Veronica deserves special mention as does Conor Sheehan’s disturbing portrait of J.D., the charming loner-turned-psychopath.

Rare, genuinely comedic moments belong, however, to the adult roles, played with comic-book stylization by Geoff Johnson, Ben Mattson and Joy Kilpatrick. It’s parents and teachers, after all, who are really to blame from the teenage point of view.

It’s a long show and could be trimmed. The recorded soundtrack too often overwhelms the spoken and sung dialogue. That could be fixed.

That said, “Heathers” is a difficult show. Audience reactions suggest there’s plenty of disagreement. Here’s a sample: A recent college graduate immediately said she liked “the vulgarity.” A disgruntled grandmother who left at intermission, cited vulgarity as the reason for leaving. A 40-ish professional said the movie reflected a common view of high school life in the 1980s and looked forward to the musical version. Random responses criticized the prevalence of violence and the trivialization of death. One student said: “Get over it, that’s the way things are now.”

“Heathers” is worth seeing and talking about. Would that Theatreworks had scheduled a talk-back after each performance.

On satire

The history of satire is full of troublesome works like “Heathers,” the movie and the musical.

If a satire appears too close to a public event, there’s bound to be backlash. Distance helps.

Consider Voltaire’s “Candide,” one of the greatest satirical works in the Western canon. Voltaire took on political and religious corruption in 1759 aiming particularly at the shallowness of philosophical optimism, the reigning “best-of-all-possible worlds” thinking. “Candide” may be about another time and place, but its tropes made sense to Leonard Bernstein in 1956 when he created the musical version. There are some parallels here in our “everything’s fine” consumer culture.

“Heathers: The Musical” is not “Candide.” “Heathers: The Musical” is not a masterpiece. It’s an imperfect vehicle for examining our time. It’s here, and it’s relevant.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.