The Basin

Grover Theatre Company

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I ventured out to The Basin for the first time on Saturday night before starting my vacation to attend my first Grover Theatre Company production, a retelling of Heathers. Throughout the performance year, Heathers was one of the most popular musicals to adapt as companies from Out Of The Wings to OCPAC and more recently, universities like VCA and RMIT have either presented or are soon to present productions of the show. When this is the case, theatre companies need to ensure the audience that they are not going to experience the same show a rival group displayed because if they do that, interest will be lost and the audience will be lost so in order to stop them from experiencing déjà vu, a sense of originality must be added to keep the musical fresh. Every organisation will have their work cut out for them when attempting to achieve a feat such as this and Grover is no exception but if you have a highly creative cast, crew and production team then one can still make the magic of theatre come alive even after numerous adaptations and Grover were able to do just that with their latest spectacle.

In the director’s chair, Hannah Bird had a creative vision that gave Heathers a more intimate setting with smaller set pieces in a fashion similar to the independent theatre scene, skipping over the bright lights and heavy theatrics a lot of musicals around the world are known for. This approach can be hit or miss, but Bird hit it right out of the park as it helped their actors create more of a community vibe like a real high school has and it opened up the doors for more indie presentations of staging and performances in a directorial feat that was prestigious and personalised. Behind the baton were two immensely talented ladies ready to make a splash by tackling Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s thrilling score as the production’s two musical directors, band director Kristie Thai and vocal director Ariella Gordon. Thai was able to work her magic like she always does as she and her trusted band kept in time with every performer without a single misstep and ensured that every instrument was heard loud and clear; Gordon had the power to allow every vocalist to utilise the best of their singing abilities no matter their experience with the inclusion of phenomenal character skills as well as their natural voice talents and together, Thai and Gordon provided us with bop after bop in both departments with MD turns that were crisp and crystallized. Choreographer Ashleigh Janky and assistant choreographer Julia Gregory took inspiration from many contemporary popular acts of the 1980s and 1990s to inform the routines they had planned out for their dancers, especially male group acts like New Kids On The Block, NSYNC and the Beastie Boys and female soloists like Kylie Minogue, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Each number had fun, flexible and free-spirited chorey that granted permission for the crowd to get their party on, the performers to dominate the floor with killer moves that could give contestants on shows like So You Think You Can Dance a run for their money and Janky and Gregory themselves rising the groove factor with routines that could be considered their best yet.

All the creatives who made up the cast of Heathers delivered notable performances that gave them all standout status regardless of how much stage time they were given with characters that represented every type of adolescent on the planet. I believe the company ensemble and featured roles rightfully deserved the top billing they were given alongside the leads because they were all essential in carrying the show on multiple occasions with consistent energy and enthusiasm without breaking character a single time. They may have been categorised as ensemble but all of them were true leaders on the stage whether they were in Westerberg High’s student body, faculty or simply observing the school as parents or police. I have a lot of ground to cover with the leads so I will try to limit my comments to one sentence for each lead and to start us off is Andrew Vassett, who’s twisted yet terrific take on JD masterfully covered the troubled teen’s descent into madness instead of jumping head first into his borderline psychopathy, painting him in one of the most human lights imaginable as a soul who was simply lost beyond the point of no return. Hannah Pierce, Kristen Ryan and Lo Vanguardia were devious, darling and delicious as the titular Heathers, Chandler, McNamara and Duke respectively and together formed a trio to end all trios with attitude that we couldn’t resist living for whether they redeemed themselves later in the show or not. Joy Pote and Jack Bell were hellish yet hilarious as the half-witted douchebag football jocks we all knew in our school days Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney as they came up with the perfect blend of the characters’ threatening and goofy nature as proud as lions and as mischievous as monkeys. Saskia Penn was innocent yet inspirational and illustrated as Martha Dunnstock when she reminded the audience that happy endings are never out of reach and true friendship always prevails in a display that was sweet as sugar and strong as steel. As a special mention, Kelley Murphy and Connor Ryan’s lustrous and lively performances as Mr. Kelly and Mr. Sweeney brought the house down with their rendition of My Dead Gay Son as they garnered so many cheers from the audience, it could have garnered a standing ovation for the number alone and the chemistry both actors exhibited between them could melt the coldest of ice glaciers with a fire that couldn’t be tamed.

The absolute reigning monarchs of the night were two performers who constantly had the audience on their side despite the vicious actions they both partook in and they were Esther Penman in the role of Heathers’ main protagonist Veronica Sawyer and Sos Gill in the role of Heathers’ most underrated villain, teacher Ms. Fleming. Penman was the definition of a natural born Queen in a role that she was born to play with sass, spirit and stamina that even Veronica’s original actress Winona Ryder would envy; while showcasing vocals that rocked the microphone, acting that could make the audience wonder if her performance was semi-autobiographical and movement that could seduce you with a single step, Penmam could make you scream your lungs out in ecstasy and have you on your knees begging for more by the time the final curtain fell. In the meantime, Gill delivered one of the most human takes of Ms. Fleming as they got across the fact that the troublesome teacher did have good intentions despite her exploitative nature but still kept Fleming’s hunger for her fifteen minutes of fame stronger than ever in a balanced yet bold and badass  characterisation. Like Murphy and Ryan’s My Dead Gay Son, Gill’s rendition of Shine A Light received some of the loudest applause of the evening and could have gotten standing ovation on its own and that’s because they gave 110% commitment to their character, soulful pipes that left the audience with their faces melted and reminders that adults can be just as misguided as adolescents can, providing us with everything we as a community can ask for when it comes to electrically excellent entertainment.

Grover Theatre Company are not the first and they won’t be the last to adapt Heathers in 2023 but they continued to provide the bloody fun that the cult favourite show is known for along with their own spin on many characters that theatre performers and patrons all across Melbourne have fallen in love with since the musical’s debut almost a decade ago. This is a production that will let the rest of our community know what the company and their creatives’ are capable of and could have more people rushing to them when the 2024 show season begins and I know that I will be there to see their next big display come to fruition with great anticipation. Special shoutout to Kristen Ryan, Lo Vanguardia, Saskia Penn, Ash Buntsma and Rebecca Symes for their fantastic performances in the production and to the rest of the cast and crew associated with Heathers on kick-starting a thrilling first weekend and as always, I implore you to get your tickets if you haven’t already, support the company and local theatre. Congratulations Grover on a great show, chookas for the rest of your run and welcome to the candy store.

Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo is a community theatre performer with a passion to bring a positive energy and encouragement to those in theatre who have gone unnoticed or underrepresented. They hope their reviews can help bring the spotlight back to a community that has helped them throughout the years.
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