Review: Heathers

OCPAC, Cripps Centre (Caulfield Grammar)
Until 30 September

I found myself in Caulfield on Friday night to attend the opening night of OCPAC’s production of Heathers. This time last year, OCPAC presented the crowd with their revolutionary production of In The Heights which cleaned up during the 2022 awards season at both the Guilds and the Lyrebirds and was a key production in our community’s representation renaissance. After wildly acclaimed runs of any production, theatre companies can often find themselves under a lot of pressure to replicate that success with their next outing and it can go one of three ways; on rare occasions, it can be even better than their last display but in most cases it may in critics’ eyes either fall flat when comparing it to the last season or it can be equally as good. A lot is usually riding on theatre companies to deliver the latter so the pickiest of audiences and the harshest of critics can keep coming back and holding the company in high regard and I definitely believe that OCPAC’s follow up to In The Heights passed this test with flying colours providing us with a real retro retelling of Heathers that had us cackling, crying and overall, having a “bloody” good time. 

Taking a break from choreography to sit in the director’s chair, Joel Anderson built Westerberg High from the ground up with a creative vision that perfectly captured the essence of American schooling life, the cruel side of high school many of us know all too well and the damage that the teenage social hierarchy has on the minds of people before and after graduation. Anderson allowed all of his actors to return to their educational roots to inform their portrayals and what they channelled could almost be considered method without a single group of individuals going unrecognised and he was instrumental in breaking down divides of race, sexuality, status, gender and age to introduce a human element to each character like no other in a directorial effort that was glamorous and groundbreaking. Musical director Ashton Turner kept her trusted band and her vocalists held together tightly in melodic and rhythmic harmony behind the baton as she and assistant MD Angus McKean highlighted the strengths of each vocalist and the skills of each instrumentalist in smooth and soulful style. No lyric, note or even sound effect were out of time with the company under Turner’s bewitching spell, especially when she utilised her baton like a magic wand and proved to the masses how serious and dedicated she is to her magical craft. As for the dance department, choreographer Dylan Henry and his assistant Adriana Pannuzzo presented the audience with what is arguably some of the best choreography our amateur scene will see this year, featuring heavy routines that could be mistaken for those at a professional level, synchronised steps and movements that kept time to the beat of the music and physical expression of emotion that we the audience could feel deep within our bones. All of Henry’s dancers possessed feet that were ready to party at the drop of a hat whether it came in the form of a school cheer, a mating call, a varsity kegger or even a funeral procession and his influence was essential to making each dance display a production standout in a bouncy and breathtaking choreographic turn that Broadway folks could envy. 

As I previously mentioned, all of the cast channelled all of their emotions and feelings towards their schooling days into their performances and they broke down so many barriers in doing so to deliver some of the most powerful and convincing of performances. First, I’d love to give props to those present in the ensemble, featured roles and pit singers, who’s work never went unnoticed when it came to making every musical number feel vocally fuller and every dance number feel like it was right out of a classic 80s music video. Characterisation wise, each of them committed themselves 100% by creating a role that was all their own and all part of a certain clique associated with high school; even the pit singers who weren’t seen onstage until the curtain call put this method into practice and if that’s not dedication to the craft, then I don’t know what is. Coming up to the leads, we start with the titular Heathers themselves, Heather Chandler, Duke and McNamara who together form a legendary band like the Three Musketeers in reverse and Alexandra Knight, Taylah Chisholm and Chloe Taylor respectively owned their roles by making them their bitch in a fashion that was royal, rewarding and ravishing. Knight was like the hellspawn of the devil when it came to portraying Heather Chandler, the ultimate Queen Bee, mean girl and character we love to hate and was able to scare the audience in a way that was borderline traumatising; Chisholm covered the crossover from crony to commandant with the snap of her fingers as Heather Duke and painted an accurate representation of how new found leader status can change a person for better or worse, especially when they’ve previously been pushed over the edge; meanwhile, Taylor showcased her most vulnerable side when portraying Heather McNamara by highlighting the damage that popularity can do to one’s mental health in an almost semi-autobiographical manner all the while staying human and grounded to make her performance all the more memorable. 

Lucy Ross and Jack Telford reminded us who the real villains of Heathers were with their respective portrayals of Ms. Fleming and Big Bud Dean as I believe that the former’s exploitative nature turned a blind eye on her students’ wellbeing for her own personal gain and helped keep toxic cliques active and the latter’s apathetic nature and sick fascination of destruction lead his son to mass murder and revenge out of spite for him. Both Ross and Telford convincingly demonstrated how fame can go to people’s heads and continue the vicious cycle of power abuse long after leaving school walls and gave poetic and purposeful performances to match these all too painful messages. Some of the biggest standouts of the night were Jazmin Green’s melancholy yet magical and moving portrayal of Martha Dunnstock and Jacob Carroll (in his theatrical debut) and Josh Direen’s dastardly yet dashing and driven portrayals of school jocks/douchebags Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney. Green’s adorable characterisation of a teenager mercilessly bullied yet finds solace and hope in happy endings straight out of the movies was nothing short of precious, especially when her love for her fellow castmates inspired her performance overall and formed Martha’s contagiously caring heart that was able to bring tears to the audience’s eyes in her signature number, Kindergarten Boyfriend. Carroll and Direen on the other hand had me believing that they were my own high school bullies reincarnated, but this made their performance all the more menacing exactlt like its supposed to be; not only that, but the chemistry they had together could start a fire the way they bounced off each other so effortlessly, it was like they were bros long before production began, going together like peaches and cream and making perfect sense whether their characters were believed to be football buddies or secret homosexual lovers. 

OCPAC’s Heathers was one of the few productions I’ve witnessed this year where both the male and female lead would be considered the king and queen of the production and how could I overlook that when both performers were ideally cast, had chemistry stronger than electricity in the air and were key portrayals in our community’s representation renaissance? As far as I’m concerned, Lawrence Hawkins in the role of Jason “JD” Dean and Afua Adjei in the role of Veronica Sawyer were untouchable and the bond they had on stage could not be broken and as their song says their love truly was God. Hawkins was villainous, vigorous and visionary in his performance of the disturbed psychopath who finds his true love in the mixed up world that is high school and brings her along for the ride as he enacts his revenge on the social hierarchy. Baring not only JD’s but his own personal identity body and soul throughout the spectacle’s run time, Hawkins was right in his element more confident than ever and despite his poetic end in the production’s climax, the entire crowd wanted him to be our boyfriend too by the time the show was over and this is a testament to what a phenomenal talent and asset he is to our beloved circuit in a career best. In the meantime, Adjei gave a performance that can only be described as cool, crisp and commanding as the teenager who tries to survive high school by climbing the social ladder but after crossing paths with a young man who she begins a tragic love affair with, finds more pleasure in the simplicity of being seventeen. Adjei let the audience know early on that she was the one in complete control of Veronica’s story, Westerberg High and herself as a performer, a person of colour and a strong, independent woman in one of the most feminist characterisations we’ll see this year; every word that came out of her mouth in form of speech or song deserved every bit of applause she received and Veronica’s human element was on full display from  beginning to end in a performance that could see Adjei become one of the most highly demanded creatives in Melbourne, spreading a message of courage for the world to see. 

OCPAC’s grand return to the stage in the form of their adaptation of Heathers was just as prominent and heralded as their award winning production of In The Heights was this time last year and I believe it may have the potential to replicate that success come award season. Featuring a dream team on the production side, acting that convinced us we were in high school all over again, music, vocals and sound of the utmost quality, choreography that could make the room shake and behind the scenes elements that were screaming 80s, Heathers had something for everyone in a show that was hard to fault and after back to back smash hits on stage, I look forward to seeing what creative wonders the company will deliver when they make it three in a row. Special shoutout to Joel Anderson, Dylan Henry, Chloe Taylor and Luke Peverelle for their work on the production and with this being a theatrical event that can NOT be missed this year, make sure you get your tickets while there’s still plenty in the candy store, support the company and local theatre. Congratulations OCPAC on an opening night that was as lively as they come, chookas for the rest of your run and for the love of God, never shut up again.

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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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