Photo by Chaz D Photogrpaphy

If you are reading this, it means at some point in your existence, you may have triumphed through, struggled through, or quietly endured those impactful four years of life called high school. If you’re a product of the 80s, you remember neon clothing, corded phones, Icees, Corn nuts, Red Vine, big bangs and scrunchied ponytails, and oh, those insufferable, popular bitches that ruled your school.  If you were at the lowest end of the pecking order, you might have even wished for an end to the torture, fantasies of the permanent removal of the Queen Bees.

With book, music, and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, Heathers the Musical is a rock musical adaptation of the dark 1989 hit comedy movie Heathers.

In his superb directorial debut at mad Theatre of Tampa, Justin Batten gifted us with the perfect Valentine’s Day present in the hundred-percent politically-incorrect, violence-filled, angsty look at teen popularity. If you remember the movie, Heathers Chandler, Duke and McNamara ruled the school. Veronica wanted to be accepted, even if it meant abandoning her childhood friend, Martha Dunnstock dubbed “Dumptruck” by the popular set. When Veronica assimilated, getting unintentionally drafted into the Heathers due to her forgery acumen, JD came into her school and her life and turned it upside down, assuring those that deserved it, got what was coming to them.

Because the show pertained to bullying, the theatre made a donation to Kids on the Block, a program with Champions for Children to support anti-bullying and anti-school violence.

With patrons singing along to preshow music guaranteed to get you in the 80s mood, the lights rose on Veronica writing in her diary, with “Freak! Slut! Burnout! Bug eyes! Poser! Lard ass!” sung by the high school archetypes in the background in accurate 80s garb by Peggy Koski. On this simple tiered-set with two sets of lockers and three sets of stairs and a live band conducted by Sarah Tellier, we knew we were in for a wild ride.

From the tone of Veronica’s voice to her movements and posturing, this young woman did her homework. Cut her dark hair and Alivia Quattrocki could easily stand in for the movie’s Winona Ryder. The audience was in the palm of her hand from the opening line of her diary. She sang of everyone being friends in their youth, “then we got bigger, that was the trigger, like the Huns invading Rome” and the audience sympathized, empathized and we fell in love with this somewhat nerdy version of Veronica Sawyer.

“This ain’t no high school, This is the Thunder Dome.”

Kelly King’s choreography throughout the production, but especially using familiar school lunch trays leading up to the grand entrance of the Heathers was incredible.

You couldn’t have picked a better clique if you tried. Imani Serrano as Heather Chandler made you want to punch her beautiful, albeit prissy little face, even later as a bossy ghost. She perfected the “mythic bitch” she was secretly called behind her back. Britney Cuilty and Paige Lewandrowski were her followers Heather Duke and Heather McNamara. Britney played Duke, the second in command, with high school historical accuracy and Paige, the almost-nice-but-don’t-let-Heather-see-you-be-nice, girl who conforms and follows her bolder Heathers, you almost felt sympathy for. Almost. The trio’s vocals and choreography of “Candy Store” was simple impeccable. When they transformed Veronica from plain-Jane to knockout, you almost hoped Veronica would keep her humanity.

When they did something horrible to Martha and Veronica joined in against her BFF to be recruited and transformed into a Heather-In-Training, thank God JD appeared to pull Veronica into the dark side to dole out his brand of justice and bring order to the stacked high school clique system.

It was especially enjoyable to see the latter two Heathers come into their own, once out of Heather Chandler’s huge shadow. When Heather Duke took the coveted scrunchy and added it to her own, we sensed immediately the power of the single hair adornment and Britney wore it well. The coquettish Heather McNamara’s “Lifeboat” made you realize even popular girls have problems.

The use of slow motion in JD’s fight scene with Ram and Kurt made a snarky show even more fun and you could tell because the audience applauded in response. The vapid football jocks who knocked lunch trays out of lesser students’ hands were played exceptionally by Christian Rodriguez and Sean McKinley. They were so spot-on as stupid bullies and potential #MeToo predators that their passing was like, ok, and moving on…. In other words, my heart didn’t break because they were very believable. The later costume choice was absolute perfection… though I will never think of Superman and Batman the same way again.

Reminiscent of a young Sean Penn, Aaron Castle as the charismatic, dark and brooding, trenchcoated JD commanded the stage and made Veronica tongue-tied. Aaron exuded the sexy, sinister edge that made JD a wall poster favorite in the 80s. When Veronica said, “I didn’t catch your name,” and JD deadpanned, “I didn’t throw it,” the audience felt the raw chemistry sizzle between the two. The PG-raunchy “Dead Girl Walking” and foreboding “Our Love is God” showcased the gorgeous vocal talents of both Aaron and Alivia whose voice continued to grow stronger as her character got more entrenched in JD’s normalized insanity.

Dressed in a pink unicorn sweatshirt, when Karli M. Gundersen sang “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” discovering she’d been a victim of the Heathers and Veronica’s prank, the audience felt Martha’s waves of pain emanating before she attempted to take her life. Our hearts broke for her.

Rounding out the incredible strong cast of singers and dancers was the adorable geek Richard Cubi, the hipster dork Richard Brown, the stoner Corryn Kennedy, the New Wave party girl Emily Schurr, and the young Republican played by Julia Mason. Jay Morgan, Taylor Brown, and Jarrett W. Koski played the multiple adult roles with aplomb. Special mention must be made for Taylor as the hippie-dippy-kumbaya teacher Ms. Fleming. From her costume, oversized glasses to her disheveled hair, she personified every overwhelmed high school teacher attempting to the make school a place where everyone feels heard.

Though the topics were dark – murder and suicide- even in this day and age, it is still a beloved show because Heathers the Musical is/was high school for most of us and to see the good guys succeed for once, even if the good guys are particularly insane, was a truly satisfying, wicked revenge fantasy.

Despite a slight sound or mic issue where the music was louder than a few of the softer singers, this was another “H” beginning-named killer show at the Straz that many people will be disappointed if they didn’t get tickets to its sold-out run.