GUEST REVIEW: Jeff McMahon Goes Back To High School With ETC’s HEATHERS

Published on August 11, 2017 by   ·   No Comments

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Miss Jaye has been neglecting her theatre-going duties, y’all!  There are all kinds of great productions happening in and around Grand Forks and with work and side projects and general badass diva responsibilities, she just can’t make it to them all!  So we’re very excited to welcome guest reviewer Jeff McMahon to review the Empire Theatre Company’s latest production (and the second of their summer offerings, Heathers!  We’re very excited to have Jeff with us for this review (and Miss Jaye is devastated that she’s not able to attend!) and we hope to have more guest reviewers join us in the future to help “beef up” our arts and entertainment coverage.  For now – enjoy!

Heathers 05“Dear diary, my teenage angst now has a body count…”

What were you in high school? Not where, what? We all spent time in some of those old cliques in high school. The nerds. The geeks. The guys playing Dungeons and Dragons on Saturday nights. Ok – that was just me. Well, to be honest, two out of three ain’t bad. I never was one for social interaction. High School has always been a place that grew social status, developed insecurity, and turned rumors into an Olympic sport. If you need to refresh your memory, check out Heathers – The Musical at the Empire Arts Center.

Heathers 04While neither my wife nor I had seen the 1988 movie of the same name this musical was based on, we had heard it was like “Mean Girls set in the 1980’s”. The first positive is that you don’t need to see the movie to understand the musical. Frankly, I was happy I hadn’t. The twists and turns in this dark comedy kept me entertained throughout the show. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much if I knew how it was going to end. The second positive is this show is nothing as simple as “Mean Girls set in the 1980’s”. This coming of age story is at times a campy comedy, a star-crossed lover’s tragedy, and a dark comedy about the dangers of teenage life and love all rolled into one.

The story is set in a high school in Ohio, ruled by three popular girls all names Heather.  Heather Chandler (Brenna Skallet), Heather McNamara (Gina Uhlir), and Heather Duke (Emily Olson) befriend a wallflower with a talent for forging handwriting. Veronica Sawyer (Alexis Gordon) is propelled from awkward outsider to popular girl overnight, complete with a new wardrobe, and is integrated into the schemes of “The Heathers”. Enter the “new boy”. The brooding, intellectual, outsider, anarchist Jason Dean (Christopher Knudson) has his sights set on destroying the status quo and the hierarchy The Heathers have built. Veronica finds herself caught in the middle as these two worlds collide.

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First off, let me congratulate the creative team at the Empire Theater Company. A six-show main stage season will most certainly stretch the resources of our community, both artistic and financial. It takes courage to find the outside reaches of what you can do. All the best as you continue to bring new theater to our area.

Heathers 06The set design of this show deserves to be mentioned as well. Designed by Abby Schoenborn and built by Evan Montgomery, my eyes were drawn to how unsettling everything was. There are very few square corners and everything seems to be built leaning slightly to one direction or another. It lends itself to an unbalanced feel. Thinking about it more, wasn’t that how we all felt in high school? Weren’t we “normal, but not quite right”?

I’ve got three gold star acting awards this time around. The first goes to Caleb Reich (playing Kurt’s Dad/Veronica’s Dad/Principal Gowan) for a dance routine at the end of “My Dead Gay Son” that should have brought the house to its feet, but every man in the theater was bent over with sympathy pains. Speaking of inferiority complexes, gold stars to Casey Hennessey and Seth Cline (playing the football jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly) for the intestinal fortitude to spend the entire second act in their tighty whities. My wife thinks you were stuffing your costumes. Personally, I didn’t spend much time looking.

The best performance? Keep your eyes on Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock, played by Abigail Gilbert. It’s not easy to play awkward and insecure without looking clownish. I found Martha’s performance real and instantly sympathetic. That’s a neat trick on someone as cynical as I am.

Unfortunately, the Empire’s old bugaboos were out in force again. In contemporary American musical theater, large portions of the plot are delivered to the audience through song. If the audience can’t hear the words to a song, we will lose the plot. That’s been my problem with the last few shows I’ve seen at the Empire. The underscore is set too loud, and the microphones have to be set higher to compensate. The result is a cascade failure of noise. The singers come out either too shrill or too swamped by the music to understand. The result is an oppressive distraction to the show.

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The second old Empire enemy has nothing to do with the cast and crew. I mentioned how ambitious a six show season will be. We’re all guilty of complaining about the lack of options in Grand Forks nightlife. We sometimes forget that there are individuals and small groups working to change that, and they all need our support. I won’t say this is the best show I’ve ever seen, or ever seen at the Empire, but the cast and crew deserve our support. I estimate about 30 individuals working either onstage, backstage, or in the house to entertain their community on a Thursday night. The audience numbered 63. I counted. 63. It’s impossible to do your best work to less than 20 percent of a house. Sure, congratulate the performers and tell them they did a great job, it’s important, but little green pieces of paper keep artists working. In short, if we want it, we have to buy it.

This is a show that deserves your support. It’s fun. It’s clever. It has enough twists and turns to keep everyone entertained. There is a caveat – due to subject matter, rough language, and a body count over three (I’m a little fuzzy on the 4th fate), this show is intended for mature audiences. I laughed at the signs as I left. I work around famers and agribusiness people all day. My profanity filter must be set a little low. Both my wife and I liked it, and we stopped and took the picture of another couple under the marquee. They thought it was great.

Heathers – The Musical runs at the Empire Arts Center through August 19th.

For ticket information, visit the Empire Arts Center websiteAbigail Gilbert, who plays Martha, will be familiar to those who attended last year’s production of Hairspray – she played Tracy Turnblad alongside Miss Jaye as Edna!  We even did a profile of her then – if you missed it, you can find it HERE!

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