Aisle View: New High School Musical

And here we have a raucous, bright and vulgar musical comedy about fun-loving, middle-American teens who bully each other, murder each other, attempt suicide, and finally blow up the high school. Raucous, bright, uneven, and distasteful for viewers who don't quite buy into the joke.

The final preview audience at Heathers -- based on the 1988 film of the same title -- ate it up, lavishing the familiar characters with entrance applause, cheering the fondly remembered lines from the screenplay, and altogether having a high old time (although a jaded playgoer might suspect that the house was loaded with investors, friends of investors, and friends of friends). There is, certainly, a built-in audience for this sort of thing; as at Rock of Ages, the lowbrow jukebox musical at the Helen Hayes now finishing its fifth year, alcoholic beverages are aggressively hawked up and down the aisles. Like Rock of Ages, Heathers might indeed be more palatable with a drink or three.

We professional critics, of course, aren't swayed by alcohol, crowd response or political correctness. I myself have a soft spot for maniacal musicals about macabre murderers, like the one about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and all those savory, meaty treats (like shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd). But not this new one at New World Stages.

The problem with Heathers -- and if the show finds an audience like Rock of Ages, this will not be much of a problem -- is one of tone. It seems like lyricist/librettist Kevin Murphy and director/coproducer Andy Fickman, from film-and-TV-land, snapped their fingers one day by the pool and said: wouldn't a musical comedy version of Heathers be cool? In much the same way that some years ago a similar light bulb went off in the cartoon-bubble over the same two heads inspiring the musical comedy version of Reefer Madness!, which achieved some success in Los Angeles in 1998 but no success in New York in 2001.

Reefer Madness was a 1936 propaganda film about the evils of marijuana, which was later repackaged as a cult exploitation favorite. The heightened hysteria was well-suited to a satirical stage musical. Heathers, the movie, is a very different sort of property; the filmmakers use extreme anti-social violence to make a point, but it is eerie rather than slap-happy funny. The stage version goes for colorful, funny, satire -- the more gags the better -- and that leaves the purveyors peddling jokes about bullying, suicide, and blowing up schools.

That being the case, the score is loud and jokey with such inelegant offerings as "Blue" (about an anatomical problem the nasty football players are having as they prepare to rape the heroine) and "My Dead Gay Son." The latter put much of the audience in stitches altogether. Conversely, there are a handful of impressive songs, presumably ascribable to the presence of coauthor Laurence O'Keefe (of Bat Boy and Legally Blonde.) "Seventeen," sung by the heroine lamenting her loss of innocence, is altogether fine. It catches the tone of what Heathers ideally should be, and is likely to become a favorite in cabarets and at auditions.

The cast is large; seventeen Equity members on off-Broadway salaries, which makes a mighty hard nut to crack. Barrett Wilbert Weed carries the show as Veronica, the girl who battles and defeats the clique-girls known as the Heathers. She is well supported by Ryan McCartan as the bad-boy hero J.D. Neither, though, has the undefinable oomph that emanated from the then little-known actors who played the roles in the film version, Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. Others stand out when the material warrants, specifically Jessica Keenan Wynn -- who from the sound of it must be the great-granddaughter of the great Ed Wynn -- as the meanest of the Heathers; Elle McLemore, who provides the evening's funniest moment when she tries to swallow a bottle of pills; and Michelle Duffy as an ex-hippie schoolteacher who still lights candles. Hidden away in a small role -- singing about the aforementioned dead son -- is 1993 Tony Award-winner Anthony Crivello from Kiss of the Spider Woman.

The staging by producer Fickman, the set, and other production elements don't offer much to speak of. Choreographer Marguerite Derricks, though, keeps her portions of the show sprightly enough to grab our interest, and there are several effective moments from lighting designer Jason Lyons.