Jay Geller is an extremely talented stage director. As the head of the theater department for McHenry County College, Geller produces and directs several productions each year. Usually, the season includes a number of high-quality amateur productions featuring community and student performers, which is then balanced with one professional production each year.
One of the things that makes Geller such a gifted director is that he has the ability to adapt his work approach and directing style to get the most out of whatever level of talent he is guiding. He can take a young actor and show them the first steps in becoming a great performer or he can take a seasoned veteran and inspire them to new heights.
The Black Box Theatre at MCC is now presenting the modern cult theater piece Heathers the Musical, based on the cult classic 1980s film. Under Geller’s direction, the thrilling, funny, and touching production runs through November 13 in Crystal Lake, IL.
While Heathers the Musical falls on the side of one of MCC’s amateur productions, many of its performers have talents that could be featured at some of the area’s professional venues. It is an excellent production.
The musical is based on the 1988 dark comedy film Heathers by Daniel Waters and directed Michael Lehmann. The film cast featured young Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, and Shannon Doherty. It was, in fact, the role that propelled Slater into national prominence after drawing comparisons to Jack Nicholson.
Like the film, Heathers the Musical deals with such issues as bullying, teen suicide, sexual assault, and school violence – but with an air of black comedy. Featuring music, lyrics, and book by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, the musical made its Off-Broadway debut in 2014 after a Los Angeles tryout. It has also had success in London’s West End.
Taking place in the small suburban town of Sherwood, Ohio circa 1989, Heathers the Musical focuses on high school student Veronica Sawyer. A lifelong nobody, Veronica makes a pact with the devil to become accepted as one of the “in crowd”. Most notably this involves catering to the whims of the school’s governing cool kids – the Heathers.
The Heathers are the school’s three princesses of popularity: Heather Chandler, Heather McNamara, and Heather Duke. They are hot and they know it, and they use that sense of entitlement to rule the school.
Heather Chandler is the leader of the group. In an interesting twist, Heather Chandler laments that overseeing the cool kids at the high school is akin to being the mayor of a town. She has to keep everyone in their place to keep the school running at top efficiency as a closed ecosystem.
Heather Chandler is enabled by her ladies-in-waiting – Heather McNamara and Heather Duke, as well as their pet project Veronica. While enjoying the virtues of popularity with the Heathers, Veronica battles an internal war of good and evil.
Enter transfer student JD, an anti-hero who seems to be cut from the same cloth as James Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause. JD’s good looks spark Veronica’s interest, and his anti-establishment theatrics cause her to fall for the school’s new loner bad boy.
Together Veronica and JD begin to take down the bullies of the school. They don’t just put the bullies in their place. Whether by accident or not, the “villains” start to die. To cover up their part in the deaths, Veronica and JD pose the victims as suicides – prompting a sickeningly sensationalized kum by yah response by the high school’s administration.
In the central role of Veronica, Gabrielle Urbina is scrumptious. She has a likability that the role requires, but also so much more. Urbina is 100% believable as the 17-year-old struggling to find her way in the world. She has a lovely but fervent singing voice and instills in her character a passion that transcends the stage.
In my own performing career, there are times that I have felt a special energy when playing a role. Almost a tingle, it is confirmation that one is giving the kind of performance that happens only a few times in a life. That’s the energy that Urbina gives off as Veronica. When all is said and done, Veronica in Heathers the Musical may turn out to be one of the crown jewels in Urbina’s performing career. It is a special experience to witness.
Heather Chandler is played with luscious devilishness by Grace Corwine. She is cute and aloof, domineering and utterly narcissistic. Her tyrannical rule is enabled nicely by Erin Benson as Heather McNamara and Sarah Hadfield as Heather Duke.
Ethan Sherman consistently turns in fine performances throughout Chicago’s northwest suburbs. He’s a solid actor with an endearing singing voice and handsome good looks – just what’s needed to bring JD to life in an exciting way. This performance is one of Sherman’s best to date.
There are a number of strong supporting players in this community theater gem. Connor Madigan and Nick Robison are wonderfully over the top as Westerberg High School’s resident meathead jocks Ram and Kurt. Madigan and Robison’s comic relief abilities provide an unending stream of laughs.
Grey Smith is particularly touching as Martha Dunnstock, one of the uncool kids at Westerberg High. Smith’s Martha is vulnerable, awkward, and sweet; she is undeserving of the bullying that goes on in schools. It is a nice performance.
As the story’s adults, Antoni Lopez Pares, Jake Seelye, and Monica Hauschild are strong in multiple roles. Other students at the school are played by Isabella Aguilar, Desmon Brock, Ki Kennedy, Cody Klmek, Drew Roewer, Izzy Griffin, Adeline Keller, and Angelina Smith. It’s clear they have all poured a lot of hard work into the production, and it shows. They have a lot to be proud of.
Tara Singer provides excellent musical direction. In addition to pulling out some great vocal performances from the cast, Singer has her pit band in fine form. Off-stage bands can be difficult to coordinate with onstage singers, but Singer and Geller make the arrangement work seamlessly. The musicians include Singer (keyboard), Erik Scheele (piano), Annie Ballin (base), Sam Schatz (drums), and Ben Abney (guitar).
Maggie McCord choreographs most of the shows at MCC, and deservingly so. Like Geller, McCord knows how to get the most out of performers with different degrees of experience. For Heathers the Musical, McCord uses the space well. The choreography is energetic and captures the feel and attitude of the story. McCord always delivers a great entertainment product, and she does it again with Heathers the Musical. Her use of slow-motion action is particularly impressive and effective.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Set design by Eric Luchen is really impressive. The massive stationary set has characteristics of a high school, an insane asylum, and a meat packing factory – all the best for helping to tell a story filled with pointing out the inhumanity of school bullying.
Costumes by Carol Forman are absolutely perfect. Forman knows how to use color to tell a story, but with a natural flair. Forman’s costumes are simple but brilliant.
The staff and crew also include Dan Cosgray (assistant director), Spencer White (master of all things theatre), Daniel Mitchell (technical director), Maxwell Robey (lighting design/master electrician), Holly Adkins (scenic artist), Paul Bayer (sound and video technician), Pete Lily (videographer), Kathryn A. McCord (social media publicity), Rachel Schneider (graphic design), and Nicole Garcia (program and poster design). Publicity photos are by Christy Sturm.
Performances for Heathers the Musical are October 27, 29, & 30 and November 4,5,6, 11, 12, & 13. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7 PM. Sunday matinees are at 2 PM. All performances are in the Black Box Theatre at 8900 US Highway 14, Building E, in Crystal Lake.
For tickets call (815) 455-8746 or email email@example.com.
For additional information visit: https://www.mchenry.edu/blackbox/index.html.