Review by Kiran Gupta & Bonnie-Grace Macklin
It’s been back for a while now, but how good is it to have live theatre in Sydney? There was a palpable joy felt heading into the Darling Quarter Theatre for the return season of The Mitchell Old Company’s production of the black comedy Heathers: The Musical. Above all else, it was clear that everyone in the theatre; cast, band, crew and audience; were out to have a fabulous time with the energy to match. This was a celebration of live theatre at its best, and the entire company should be commended for that.
Heathers is a dark show. Think a far more dark and destructive “Grease”. As J.D. says, “the school is society” – at its absolute anarchical worst. Given the subject matter, the show requires some serious acting chops, and the cast had this in spades. Tiegan Denina and Jerrod Smith starred as the star-crossed high school lovers Veronica Sawyer and Jason “J.D.” Dean. Denina, in particular, was a standout, commanding the stage with a sultry, angsty performance.
The role of Veronica is one of the most vocally demanding female roles in modern musical theatre, and Denina handled the soaring high notes seemingly with ease, which must be commended. The audience stayed with Denina throughout the show, from her initial desperate desire for acceptance, through her move into the darkness alongside of J.D, and back to her eventual redemption. This is a true testament to Denina’s skills as an actress, vocalist, and dancer – it was pretty clear to the audience that this won’t be the last we see of her on a theatre stage.
Equally brilliant was her chemistry with Smith, who played the role of the high school sociopath a little too well. The subtle power of his performance shone through right from the start, captivating the audience immediately. Whilst the challenging score occasionally shone a light on some vocal and accent flaws, his acting was so powerful that any mistakes were easily overlooked.
Then there were the Heathers. In all their bitchy glory. They made the audience love them when they burst onto the stage with a fabulous rendition of “Candy Store”, then proceeded to make everyone in the room hate them before pitying them in the end. Laura Dawson (Heather McNamara) was particularly impressive, moving everyone in the room with her rendition of “Lifeboat.” Jake Vollbon and Sam Welsh left the audience in stitches as Kurt and Ram’s fathers before Michele Landsdown took the house down with a pitch-perfect solo.
But the unsung hero of this show was Martha Dunnstock, played beautifully by Jayd Luna. The outcast of Westerberg High blew the audience away with her stunning vocals in the second act – one of the most moving performances of the whole show. It was raw, it was powerful and yet, it was subtle enough to connect with everyone in the room. Her mastery of the music was only outdone by the authenticity and emotion that shone through her performance – undoubtably a highlight of the night.
No musical can truly succeed without a great ensemble. The dancing throughout the show was precise and, at times, jaw-dropping. Serious credit must go to choreographer Rheanna Hindmarch for her innovative yet technically brilliant choreography, which undoubtedly took the show up a couple of notches. Props must also go to Lighting Designer Jasmine Rizk, whose choices really made the production shine. From the show-stopping entrance of the Heathers to the chill-inducing lighting display during “Dead Girl Walking” which made the whole scene that much raunchier and sexier, the choices were flawless. The whole production team was excellent – transitioning between scenes seamlessly. The band was lively and tight, although they may have pushed the tempo a bit too much in some pivotal moments. And Jake Tyler’s directive choices were pretty much spot on for the whole show.
Even with such a talented cast, there were a few things that detracted ever so slightly from the performance. Some of the accent work throughout was a bit patchy, although never too much that it was a distraction. And while the score is undoubtedly challenging, some of the vocalists struggled with technical issues that occasionally led to a harsh sound, especially in belting registers, and some of the harmonies felt a little weak. With such a distinctive poppy score and sound, issues like this tended to stand out perhaps more than they would in another show. But overall, the vocal work, especially in the leads’ solos, was very good.
It could also be said that some of the darkness in the show was missed. While this may partly be a criticism of the musical itself, sometimes the dramatic subtext of the show was lost resulting in an ever so slight disconnect in authenticity. This didn’t seem to bother the audience at all, who were having a blast, but whether the tone was entirely true to the subject matter is up for interpretation.
With this cast being one of the first in Australia to get the rights for Heathers: The Musical, they had to live up to very high expectations. But this team of independent, up-and-coming cast and crew really did manage to fulfil those expectations, giving the audience a show to remember. Tyler and Old are really starting to put their stamp on Sydney’s theatre scene. If they can keep building on this quality of performance, ably supported by this incredible cast, then I’m sure this is not the last we will see of the stars from Westerberg High.
Image Credit: Mitchell Old Company