The Northern Fringe Festival has begun, with its unofficial first event, Heathers the Musical, opening to a sold-out audience last night. And what a perfect opening to a Fringe Festival it was.
The musical, based on the cult classic film, is definitely not for everyone. It is brash, sexual, and confronting – which is exactly how it was written to be, and exactly the sort of production Fringe Festivals celebrate. They are out there, they are extraordinary, they can start really important conversations, and – if you’re the audience they’re intended for – you’ll want to come back time and time again.
And as we were leaving last night, there were lots of audience members already talking about who they could bring to experience the night again.
Because it really wasn’t a show, it was an experience.
Heathers immerses you in the 80s as soon as you arrive at the production’s venue, the Townsville Choral Society Hall on Sturt Street – with the rear courtyard transformed into a cocktail bar-slash-croquet green. On arrival, you can order your slushie of choice – in the colour of your favourite Heather of course – and be gifted a coloured scrunchie to match. Be wary of getting bumped into by one of Westerburg High School’s students or faculty, who hurry through the crowd between classes and aren’t afraid to ask if you ‘have a dart.’ The Society’s committee has given this show their all, with front of house volunteers dressed in theme too, so you will feel like the show has started from the moment you step through the front gate.
Inside, the Hall itself has been expertly transformed specifically for this production: curtains surround and soften the inimitable band, lead by Music Director Rianta Belford, and tiered seating keeps those in the back row from feeling like they’re peering between heads at a recital.
When the production starts we meet Veronica Sawyer [Josie Power], your average high school student who is just trying to make it through to graduation so she can start life in the big wide world. Josie (Shrek, Rent, Spring Awakening) was the perfect approachable, dorky-dancing, could-be-friends-with-anyone Veronica, with a powerhouse voice that carried us through the show.
But Veronica’s flying under the radar doesn’t last long, when her world becomes intertwined with that of the Heathers – three mean girls who put Regina George to shame. Heather Chandler, played by Amelia Doolan, is Queen Bee – and you know it from the moment she strides on stage. Amelia (Grease, Rent, Spring Awakening) cuts you with a single glance, and does the iconic Candy Store justice with incredible vocals and choreography.
Brooke Maxey (Shrek, Les Miserables) as Heather McNamara plays the role so well: she is as bitchy as her green and red counterparts, but when she is left alone has breakout moments of both incredible humour and sadness – I have never seen one actor take the audience from laughter to tears so quickly. Laura Tilley (Shrek) dons the green jacket of Heather Duke – and her facial expressions alone make her one character you’ll never take your eyes off. Laura has injected so much into her performance and made Duke the believable heir to the red scrunchie.
While Veronica switches cliques pretty early in the performance, she is regularly reality checked by new kid in town JD, played by Sam Stewart (Shrek, Strictly Ballroom). JD is a complex character to play and Sam handles this well, with moments of insanity building in his performance as the show progresses. Veronica is to the Heathers as JD is to Kurt and Ram, played by Mark Whittaker (Little Shop of Horrors, Rent) and Adam Pether. The football jocks are the hilarious duo you love to hate, with their one-liners hilariously delivered but incredibly cruel and their duet of Blue receiving one of the biggest cheers of the night.
On the receiving-end of most of Kurt, Ram and the Heathers’ insults is Martha
Dumptruck Dunstock, played by Morgan Eldridge (We Will Rock You, Little Shop of Horrors, Annie). Martha is relatively silenced for the first half of the show and your heart breaks for her naïve innocence – when she finally cracks, your heart breaks even more (between laughs). Morgan’s voice is beautiful, and her haunting/ angelic ooohs in Kindergarten Boyfriend are something I won’t forget quickly.
Staging a show at a hall only requires a small cast, meaning the ensemble in Heathers is minimal and all are given their moment to shine – the ensemble ladies are given a very fun scene change in Act One, for example. There are only a handful of adult parts in the show, calling on the talents of three of Townsville’s best (Rachel Cairns, Brett Greenland and Luke Reynolds) to fill each. Saying any more about their roles would spoil the fun of the show, but there is a good chance you will be crying from laughter in the opening of Act Two.
While the hall has been incredibly transformed, it does have its downsides. Seating was tiered, but those in the back rows on floor level did have some difficulty seeing several scenes towards the end that included some floorwork. We moved across several seats so my short sister could peer down the centre aisle. Despite this, and despite my sister not being a big fan of musicals (I’ve taken her to three before and she only actively enjoyed the one with lots of Queen songs for her to sing along to), she had a blast from start to finish last night.
Mention must be made of Vocal Director Claire Davies, who has created an incredibly full and powerful sound with such a small cast; Choreographer Melissa Land who made everything from the tight Candy Store dance to whole-cast hall-fillers feel perfectly polished; Costume Designer Rachel Mahoney for her take on some of the most iconic musical costumes and the planning of one of the speediest quick changes from one side of the hall to the other; Stage Manager and Set Designer Em Molloy for a seamless set with changes that felt like part of the show; and of course Director Sandra Neal for having the vision that has brought a production back to the Townsville Choral Society Hall, and is sure to not be the last staged there based off audience feedback last night.
Again, this isn’t a show for everyone. There’s vulgar language, graphic scenes, and at least one affair. But to reiterate, that’s the beauty of a Fringe Festival. Events push boundaries and start conversations, and often leave you loving shows you never thought you would. Whether you love or hate Heathers, it won’t leave you disappointed.
You better motor – catch Heathers the Musical at the Townsville Choral Society Hall until 6 July, with limited tickets available here.