University Theater’s ‘Heathers’ could be beautiful

American Players Theatre's Jake Penner takes on a dark cult classic.
Heathers
Photo by Maya Hysaw
Director Jake Penner looks on as Natalie Matthai (center) and the rest of the cast of "Heathers: The Musical" rehearse in Vilas Hall.

Jake Penner’s had his eye on “Heathers” for a while now.

Penner, an artistic associate with American Players Theatre, is directing University Theatre’s production of “Heathers: The Musical” set to debut April 14 in the Mitchell Theatre. And he’d been mulling his take on it for several years before his phone finally rang.

“They called me and said, ‘Do you want to do it?’” says Penner. “I was like, do you want to do it?”

His question, naturally, is tied to the show’s tricky, midnight-black subject matter, an unsettling checklist that includes everything from teen suicide, date rape and murder to homophobia, bullying and bulimia. The musical, which first debuted off-Broadway back in 2014, uses its upbeat songs to put more of a candy-coated sheen on the proceedings than the 1989 cult-classic film starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater did, but the story of Veronica Sawyer navigating a high-school hellscape ruled by a clique of scrunchie-sporting bullies is still dark and disquieting as it ever was.

“The content warning label is most of the text on the show poster,” quips Penner.

But Penner sees more than just a blackly comic take on high school here — there’s also a deeper political struggle at play.

“More than almost any other show, ‘Heathers’ illustrates the instinct to find safety in a group of humans,” says Penner. “In a sense, it gets at the point of every drama: How do we live cooperatively in a group while remaining true to ourselves?”

Penner sees Veronica trying (and mostly failing) to navigate the tightrope between joining the authoritarianism represented by Heather Chandler (and, before the show’s over, Heather Duke) and the anarchism of J.D., who’s more than comfortable blowing away dumb jocks and trying to blow up the entire school to make a social statement.

Driven by that approach, Penner’s production crew made several conscious choices to amplify the notion that, as Veronica sings in the show’s opening number, Westerberg High is more of a Thunderdome than a suburban high school. Scenic designers Keith Pitts and Juliana Gessner set out to make Westerberg like a kind of modern Panopticon: The Heathers strut around on a higher level than the other students and the show’s color scheme nods to the era of grunge. Penner likens it to one of those optical illusion posters that reveals its secrets the longer you stare at it.

The blue-scrunchied Heather Duke is being played by Natalie Matthai, a University of Wisconsin–Madison senior majoring in marketing and theatre and drama. Matthai has been honing her music chops with the UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Singers these past few years. Her exposure to “Heathers” is mostly from the musical — she saw the movie for the first time only just last year. Playing Heather Duke, she says, feel like a once-in-a lifetime opportunity.

“She’s in the shadows,” says Matthai of her character. “That’s the really challenging thing — she’s dominated, and then she tries dominating. She’s like a puppy who has been kicked a lot, but she truly thinks she can do it better.”

Indeed, Penner says that the moment Matthai’s character dons the crown — or, to be more specific, the recently murdered Heather Chandler’s red scrunchie — in front of the entire school, to the strains of the musical number “Never Shut Up Again” — is the show’s key turning point.

“It’s the point of no return,” he says.

Matthai, who plans to head west after graduation to pursue a career in the film industry, appreciates the fact that this production will features a cast of college students instead of 20- and 30-somethings who are further away from the horrors of high school.

Penner agrees, but also notes the show’s universality.

“I would challenge anyone to tell me they don’t find real life reflected on stage in this show,” he says. “How do we stay respectful of our true selves?” “Heathers: The Musical” runs from April 14-24. For ticket information, click here.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.

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