Heathers, the grandmother of pop teen classics from Clueless to Mean Girls to Pretty Little Liars, has sharper claws than its theatrical incarnation now playing at New World Stages. To better fit the shiny world of musical theater, writers Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe have transformed the bleakly cynical story of three flawless high school queen bees and the best friend who brings them down into a bright and bubbly treat.
Fortunately, this doesn’t mean screenwriter Daniel Waters’s original bite has been completely lost. The students of Westerberg High spit lyrics like “slut, bitch, homo” at one another in opening number “Beautiful,” and there are enough of Waters’s iconic lines — it wouldn’t be Heathers without “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” — to please hardcore movie fans. Jessica Keenan Wynn’s Heather Chandler, red-scrunchie-clad head bitch in charge, is all vicious charisma pre- and posthumously, as her ghost haunts Veronica (Barrett Wilbert Weed), our conscience-addled heroine who just can’t stop murdering her nasty classmates with her hot, homicidal boyfriend, J.D. (a sweet-faced Ryan McCartan).
But how bad were they, really? At the heart of Heathers: The Musical is a question of redemption. Westerberg High’s students, parents, and faculty first canonize Heather Chandler, and later, homophobic date rapist jocks Kurt and Ram’s funeral becomes a place where other gay-bashers can emerge triumphantly from the closet, complete with an anthem (“My Dead Gay Son”) and glittering rainbow ties. Is the real lesson of Heathers: The Musical that killing bullies can open bigoted eyes to the value of every human life? Or, at least, every human life not deemed irredeemable by Ohio’s own Mickey and Mallory Knox.
Behind the knee socks, lip gloss, and rigid enforcement of high school caste are bigger issues of morality, power, and who gets to win in a game that’s always rigged against you, no matter how beautiful, strong, or smart you are. Though Heathers: The Musical touches on these topics, it never bothers to fully address them. However, its myriad pleasures are delicious: An early fight scene freeze-frame (“Fight for Me”) on Timothy R. Mackabee’s stripped-down stage is a highlight of Andy Fickman’s lively direction of the talented cast, and if you do need Westerberg High to get a happy ending, whether or not it involves Veronica smoking a cigarette lit on the smoldering remains of her suicide-bomber boyfriend, you’ll get your wish.