Heathers, the Musical runs through July 27 at Trustus Theatre.

Trustus’ production of Heathers, the Musical is an amalgamation of contradictions — but pleasingly so. 

It’s a musical comedy, based on a 1988 cult movie that tackled teen suicide and high school-related shootings a decade before those topics began to flood the headlines. The script, by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe, retains the film’s sharp indictment of bullying and teenage cliques, but does so via the sometimes outlandish and ridiculous conventions of musical comedy. The romantic leads are sympathetic, their duets achingly beautiful, but ultimately they get involved in a series of murders staged to look like suicides. 

Somehow, director Dewey Scott-Wiley and an age-appropriate cast of talented young adults and older teens pull these disparate components together to create a cohesive product that is part innocuous entertainment, part dark satire, and part cautionary tale about the ways our society may be failing its youth.

At a recent matinee, Katie Leitner brought vulnerability to the role of protagonist Veronica, a shy intellectual who falls in with her school’s reigning trio of queen bees, all named Heather. Michael Hazin displayed his customary flair for edgy characters as bad boy J. D., while allowing the audience to connect unspoken dots that explained much of his inner motivation. Josh Kern and Paul Smith were up for the challenge of playing macho jocks who were the butt of much of the show’s humor, while still managing to seem dangerous and menacing.

Brittany Hammock, as the alpha Heather, and Jazmine Rivera and Rachael Mitchum, as her cohorts, dominated the stage with mean girl swagger and attitude, while Jordan Harper, as the unpopular Martha, generated plentiful applause and audible cries of appreciation with her soaring vocals on the song “Kindergarten Boyfriend.” 

While this isn’t a dance-heavy show, Grayson Anthony’s choreography included some funny bits, such as a moment when students at lunch all paused to turn and salute the Heathers’ entrance with their cafeteria trays, much like a saber arch at a wedding. Another inventive effect involved a fight in slow motion that finally froze mid-punch, allowing Veronica to walk and sing among the combatants while they remained motionless.

Sam Hetler’s scenic design avoided needless details, opting instead for a series of steps and levels where the action played out, each new setting making clear by dialogue and by projections on a panel overhead whether the setting was a convenience store, an athletic field, the high school, etc. Additionally, a series of random shapes — geometric patterns and squiggly lines — adorned the walls, establishing the vibe of an MTV video from the story’s 1980s setting. The overall result was quite appealing, and somehow reminded me of The Max, the teen hangout from Saved by the Bell

Oddly, apart from one song — the party anthem “Big Fun” which contained vague echoes of Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” — the score didn’t try to replicate any of the varying musical styles of the era, such as new wave, hair metal or early grunge. Most of the show’s numbers are actually gentle and sweetly melodic, and the accompanying band, led by music director Randy Moore on keyboard, did an outstanding job with tunes that were far prettier than the murderous mayhem being depicted.

Ultimately, Heathers is a revenge fantasy taken to the extreme, with popular kids at the top of the teenage food chain not just being defeated but actually murdered. Yet the authors went one step further, allowing even the not-so-likeable characters to reveal their own insecurities and fears. 

One of several unexpected twists took the story part way down an even darker path, as the supposed rash of suicides began to spark unintended consequences, leading to several renditions of the song “Seventeen,” in which Veronica yearned for the perceived normalcy of what adolescence is supposed to be. But while much of the black comedy was played for hearty laughs, there was the lingering sense of a message — perhaps not a profound message, nor one that had to be spelled out, but a message nonetheless.  

One might easily identify with the outcasts within the school’s social structure, or feel sorry for the victims of violence when their social prominence made them targets, but either way, the message I sensed was that it doesn’t have to be this way — and that young people shouldn’t have to deal with such intense emotions just yet. Still, the play can also be enjoyed solely for entertainment value, without having to ponder its deeper implications too intensely.

What: Heathers, the Musical

Where: Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St.

When: Through July 27

Price: $30-$35

More: 803-254-9732, trustus.org

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