When I say the words “High School Musical” to you, what comes to mind?
OK, now what comes to mind after you dismiss an insipid musical on the Disney Channel that had far too many sequels, was far too successful for its own good, and went on to inspire an similarly vapid stage musical done far too many times on actual high school and middle school campuses?
The answer, I hope, is the genre of high school musicals. There are loads and loads of musicals set in high schools, going beyond the Disney titular one (to which the high schoolers among us go “Heh, heh, he said t….”). High school, it seems, is a microcosm for society at large, and the variants of that society boil down to just a few:
- The Love Story. High School Musical fits in this vein, but so do musicals like West Side Story, Grease and Bye Bye Birdie. Possibly Fame: The Musical as well, but more in a “What I DId for Love” sense.
- The Coming Out Story. A same-sex variant of the love story, providing “a very special episode” along the way. Musicals in this vein include Fame (the movie), Bare: A Rock Opera, and Zanna Don’t.
- Veiled Political Commentary. Take your political commentary, and move it to a high school setting. Zanna Don’t also fits here, as does Lysistrata Jones.
- The Bullies. This looks at the impact of being bullied, and being the kid on the outs. Occasionally these are played for humor, but often these go into dark, dark places. Examples in this vein would include Be More Chill, Spring Awakening, Carrie, Dear Evan Hansen, and Serial Killer Barbie.
Heathers The Musical, which I saw yesterday at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts (FB) in Thousand Oaks (produced by YA4Ever (FB)), clearly fits in that last vein. I was familiar with the show having heard the cast album (book, music, and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, based on the film by Daniel Waters); however, I had never seen the original movie. When I found out through the Thousand Oaks Acorn that it was being produced, I wanted to squeeze it into my schedule so I could put the story with the music. Sitting through it, I couldn’t help think about the parallels with Carrie and Serial Killer Barbie; however, Heathers left me with the feeling that it was even darker in its resonance, even though it ended up with a somewhat positive message (just like Serial Killer Barbie). Perhaps that’s because, unlike with Barbara and the Debbies, Veronica did not kill all the Heathers. But perhaps I’m ahead of myself.
Wikipedia has a detailed synopsis of the musical, which after reading the synopsis of the movie has some distinct changes therefrom. The elevator synopsis is that there’s this girl, Veronica Sawyer, who is feeling the pressures of high school and wanting to fit in. She’s someone who cares a lot about others (not good in high school), especially her friend Martha who is fubsy. She’s at the lower end of the high school pecking order, being picked on by the jocks (Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney), and especially by the trio of girls that run the school, Debbie, Debby, and Debbi, uh, make that Heather Chandler, Heather McNamera, and Heather Duke. When the Heathers discover Veronica can create realistic forgeries, they adopt her to use her against others for pain and profit. Into the picture comes Jason Dean (JD), a new kid to whom Heather is attracted. Suffice it to say that JD is damaged goods, and starts getting Veronica into situations where those who have worked against are offed, starting with Heather Chandler (which they make look like suicide), and the jocks (who they make look like a gay suicide pact). This starts up a conversation about suicide, leading to a point where they are about to bomb the high school, killing the students therein. [Cue up “Going to War” by Joe Iconis] But Veronica comes to her senses, saves the day, and changes the conversation.
Did I mention this was a dark and disturbed musical? So Joe Iconis.
You can easily understand why this has a caution warning. Here we have numerous killings, discussions of suicide, and ending with the bombing of a high school.
What’s not to love? Umm, let’s try again: This doesn’t take you to a happy place, although the ending is more uplifting that Carrie.
So this is an interesting musical. I’m certainly glad that I saw it. I wonder, though, what this genre and the direction it has been moving says about society and our youth. We’ve gone from the optimism of the 50s and 60s — the Bye Bye Birdie and Grease era, to the disaffection and apathy and damage of Heathers and Serial Killer Barbie. This isn’t anything new — Spring Awakening is a story from the 1800s. But perhaps — just perhaps — there’s hope for optimism in the ending message of Heathers, Barbie, and Evan Hansen: That we are individuals, and as individuals we have value, and that we must stand up to the bullies and be proud of who we are — and get help for when circumstances are too much. We can rejoice in someone like Veronica finding her inner strength, while recognizing the situations that created Kurt and Ram, the Heathers, and particularly JD — and wish that we could have found a way to get them help while we still could.
So let’s move to the stories and the performances. I was unfamiliar with YA4Ever before the show; evidently, they are an organization sponsored by a number of Conejo Valley (read: Thousand Oaks) organizations to provide theatre opportunies to teens, under the guidance of more seasoned professionals from the local theatre community. Translation: Theatre for teens, with talent of varying skills. Overall, I was impressed by the talent of this crew, under the direction of Timothy Reese. No, they weren’t perfect. But they were damn good in their performance, and most were strong in their singing, and they put on a very enjoyable show. They are a talented group, and I hope they continue their training and performance and grow, and that we see them move to larger regional and national stages.
One who I feel could certainly do that is their lead, Carly Jean Paul as Veronica Sawyer. She captured the character perfectly, had a wonderfully sardonic attitude and look, and just came across as, well, Veronica. And boy, could she sing. I truly enjoyed listening to her. I hope that she goes far in her career.
Alas, I can’t be quite as superlative about her compatriot, Jared Price as Jason Dean. Price had the performance part down pat. He nailed the character, the disaffection, and the anger perfectly. However, he was only about 90% there on the singing. That’s not a major fault — remember, this is a teen production and these folks are still early in their careers. I think he can get where he needs to be with some work — and with that work, I think he can do well. So I enjoyed watching his performance; there were just a few moments that needed some improvement. [ETA: I forgot to note that we also saw Price in the recent production Edges at CSUN, and he was strong there, so it might just have been an anomalous performance.]
This brings us to the Heathers: Karlee Squires as Heather Chandler (Red), Kate Freuhling as Heather McNamera (Yellow), and Shayde Bridges as Heather Duke (Green). Squires was spectacular as Heather Chandler. Strong singing, strong characterization, and fun to watch. I also enjoyed watching the characterizations of Bridges and Freuhling — especially in period after they were no longer just appendages to Heather Chandler, but I don’t recall their individual singing voices as strongly.
Martha Dunnstock was played by Francesca Barletta (FB), who we’ve seen many times on the stages at Cabrillo / 5-Star. She’s very talented, has a remarkable singing voice (shown here in “Kindergarten Boyfriend”), and does comedy well. We always enjoy seeing her.
The jocks — Jack Powell as Kurt Kelley and Tal Toker as Ram Sweeney — captured their roles perfectly. They were like every jock that I hated in high school. What a perfect characterization :-). They also sang well, especially in their big number “Blue” (a topic I’d never thought I would see on stage — evidently, there’s a “high school” version of this where they cut that song out — can’t imagine why).
Turning to the adults: Hannah Rachel Tamkin as Mrs. Fleming / Veronica’s Mom, Ryan DeRemer as Ram’s Dad / Veronica’s Dad / Coach Ripper, and William Carmichael as Kurt’s Dad / Big Bud Dean / Principal Gowan. Tamkin was a hoot as Mrs. Fleming — we’ve all seen that type of teacher — capturing her character well. She did reasonably well with “Lifeboat”, but there were a few off points. Otherwise, her singing was strong — and I love her character and performance. The two guys were great, and were standout in their main joint song, “My Dead Gay Son” (which is a real fun song). But their various characters were all different and good.
Rounding out the cast were the rest of the students, name more for their character traits than anything else: Stephanie Rojo [Stoner Chick]; Wyatt Eaton [Hipster Dork]; Michelle Johnson [Young Republicanette]; Jack Cleary [Beleaguered Geek]; Meagan Chew [New Wave Girl]; and Noah Canada [Preppy Jock]. These characters don’t get significant characterizations in the script, but the ensemble member did well with them. More importantly, they danced and sang well as a group, and were enjoyable to watch.
Speaking of movement: Sarah Fanella‘s choreography worked well and was enjoyable to watch.
Tyler Stouffer (FB), who we’ve seen before on the stages of Cabrillo, was behind the baton this time as Music Director and Conductor of an orchestra consisting of David Galvan [Keyboard 1], Zach Ragan [Keyboard 2], Gohan Ruiz [Guitar], Marco Bohler [Bass], Matthew Case [Drums], Allegra Edelnant [Violin], and Andrew Shousha [Reeds]. The orchestra provided a good sound for the space.
Turning to the production team: Director Timothy Reese‘s scenic design was simple: a gymnasium floor, some lockers hiding other props, and some sliding walls in back. It worked well for the constraints of the Hillcrest stage. It was assisted by the clever props of Lauren Alexander. Jenna Friedman’s costumes worked well to establish their characters and provide the visual distinctions, together with Victoria Reese’s hair and Alexis Abrams ‘s makeup. I think this was most notable in the transformations of the adults. Tamarra Sylber’s sound design mostly worked — the balance was good, although some individual microphones were cutting in and out. Interesting fact from the search — Sylber had a project at the 2014 California State Science Fair (where I’m a judge, although she wasn’t in my category). Nick Sheppard’s lighting design worked well to establish the mood. Rounding out the production credits: Paul Cranmer [Production Photographer]; Scott Chew [Technical Director]; Mariah Tobin [Asst. Director]; Peyton Pugh [Stage Manager]; and Natalie DeSavia [Producer]. YA4Ever was founded by Nick Berke (FB) and Ruthy Froch (FB).
Unfortunately, I caught the last performance of Heathers – The Musical. However, this show has brought YA4Ever (FB) onto my RADAR, and I hope to catch more of their productions — especially if they continue to do edgy and less produced work like this.
[ETA: This post originally had my usual links to the FB pages of the artists. They were removed at the specific request of the director, who believed he was protecting his team’s privacy. As someone who professionally works in cybersecurity, my professional ethics require me to point out that “security through obscurity” provides no security. I find FB links to people — as well as professional pages — in two ways: Searching the name on Google, or checking the friends lists of the people I have found. If this brings up an artist FB page, I use that and mark it with ★. If you want to protect your FB, that is your responsibility. What I can do, others can do as well. Here are some useful links to help: Cnet, BT, Trusted Reviews, Facebook. Make your friends list visible only to friends, make your posts friends only, make it so people cannot tag you. You have no privacy when you make things public; potential employers will do the exact same thing that I do. Think about the image you project with what is publicly available. When I suggested to the director that he tell his team this, he blamed me for not getting permission to link beforehand (something that is not required when citing public information). Also, for future reference, I do have a priority order when linking to non-FB pages: 1st, the artists web site (if not marked as infected); 2nd, a posted resume; 3rd, a credit list on abouttheartists.com, 4th a credit list on ibdb.com or playbill.com or imdb.com; 5th, an article about the person and their skills; 6th, a linked-in or youtube page showcasing their skills; 7th, Instagram or Twitter. The reason for these links is to show credits and make it so potential employers can contact them about opportunities (I like what you do, I promote you). This is similar to the bio in the program. In short, the Internet is a tool: you control what you project and put up. If you don’t want people to see things, don’t post them. Lastly, I will always remove links on a specific request, or replace them if I have found the wrong link.]
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Next weekend currently has no theatre; instead, there is a So Cal Games Day and a Walking Tour of Jewish Boyle Heights. The last weekend of January brings The Pirates of Penzance at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB).
February is busier. It starts with the Cantor’s Concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB). The following weekend brings our first Actors Co-op (FB) production of 2018: A Walk in the Woods. Mid-week brings opera: specifically, Candide at LA Opera (FB). That is followed the next weekend by the first production of the Chromolume Theatre (FB) 2018 season, Dessa Rose. The month concludes with James and the Giant Peach at the Chance Theatre (FB) in the Anaheim Hills, and tickets for Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).
March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week, so we’ll go to it after our first show in March, the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB). This is followed by a HOLD for Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend is currently open. The last weekend of March is open for theatre, but there will be the Men of TAS Seder.
April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB). Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding an Ahmanson Theatre (FB) subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.