Without question, Kokandy Productions, Chicago’s small but mightily impressive musical theater company, scored a coup simply by getting the rights to “Heathers: The Musical,” the 2004 off-Broadway hit based on the 1988 “cult classic” film starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater.
In addition, Kokandy’s Chicago premiere of the show, now at Theater Wit — where it has been superbly helmed by director James Beaudry, music director Kory Danielson and choreographer Sawyer Smith, and features a cast of 18 supremely talented actors — could not be better.
But there also is something profoundly chilling about the show, with its book, lyrics and exuberant rock score by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, based on the screenplay by Daniel Waters.
This story of “high school” as a synonym for “hell” — a tale dubbed a “black comedy” back in 1988 — now seems eerily prescient. Hovering over it in far too many ways is the pitch-black shadow of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in which two senior boys, using guns as well as bombs, murdered 12 students and one teacher, injured more than 20 others and finally committed suicide. And it is now impossible to watch this musical without seeing the character of Jason “J.D. ” Dean, “the bad-ass Baudelaire” in his black trenchcoat, as a prototype for the real-life horrors perpetrated by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the many other school shooters of recent years.
“Heathers” is set in the fictional town of Sherwood, Ohio, where the commanding harpies of Westerburg High are three wealthy, beautiful and knowingly mean girls who terrorize their fellow students. The trio, who share the same given name, include Heather Chandler (Jacquelyne Jones as a genuine virago and leader of the pack), Heather Duke (a perfectly snarky Haley Jane Schafer as the conniving one) and Heather McNamara (Rochelle Therrien, who turned in such a memorable performance in Griffin’s “London Wall” a bit earlier this season, and here proves she can sing up a storm, too, as the petite follower).
‘HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL’ Highly recommended When: Through April 24 Where: Kokandy Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Tickets: $38 Info: (773)975-8150; www.kokandyproductions.com Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
Tired of being an outsider, and hungry to join the Heathers’ ranks just to make it through her senior year, is Veronica (an ideally ambivalent Courtney Mack, whose terrific voice is matched with formidable acting skills). A super-smart and essentially decent working-class girl, she loathes the Heathers, yet makes something of a deal with this trio of devils in order to part of their power group. She also guiltily dumps her lifelong best friend, Martha (Teressa LaGamba, who stops the show with “Kindergarten Boyfriend”), the overweight girl who is the target of pernicious bullying and sexual shaming even in this era well before the advent of social media.
At the same time, Veronica begins an intense relationship with “J.D.” (the reedy, charismatic Chris Ballou, who perfectly captures his character’s brooding violence). This handsome, literate new arrival at school — who has a history as an outsider, having moved countless times in his life because of his father’s work as a demolitions expert — is wholly unlike the school’s popular but moronic jocks (played by Denzel Tsopnang and Garrett Lutz).
What Veronica (who possesses her own dark impulses) doesn’t realize, until it is far too late, is that “J.D.” is not just charismatic, but psychopathic. And it takes an event of potentially massive catastrophic scale for her to finally act, and realize she has been drawn into the same circle of hate promulgated by the Heathers that she so loathed at the start.
The show’s score has formidable drive, passion and variety. And the offstage band — led by keyboardist Charlotte Rivard-Hoster, with Kyle McCullough on guitar, Zach Lentino on bass and Isaac Stevenson on percussion — is a true powerhouse that ideally complements the clarion voices of the cast.
One final note: While this show is sure to be a hit with the teen audience (the opening night crowd looked like a gathering of latter-day Heathers), it is definitely not for younger kids. It goes far beyond the Brat Pack stories, and even “Carrie,” with more “truthiness” than anyone in this country seems to want to deal with these days.