STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
Oh, high school and its popularity contests and cliques. Some ache to be included with those that rule the school … and some don’t. That’s the focus of “Heathers: The Musical,” based on the 1988 dark comedy cult classic starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. Philadelphia’s Vulcan Lyric performs the show as part of its inaugural summer festival. Wayne native Katie Johantgen plays one of the Heathers.
The story: Veronica Sawyer, a brainy, beautiful teenage misfit, hustles her way into the most powerful and ruthless clique at Westerberg High, the Heathers. Soon after, she falls in love with the new kid and outsider, J.D. When one of the Heathers kicks her out of the group, Veronica decides to try to get back into their good graces, but J.D. has another idea.
Vulcan Lyric, formerly known as Center City Opera Theater, is adding musical theater to its repertoire with “Heathers.” The summer festival also features three operas (two regional premieres and a world premiere).
Johantgen plays Heather McNamara, one of three Heathers in the powerful clique. The costumes in the movie are iconic, she said in a telephone interview, so “Heather McNamara is the yellow one.”
She’s not the head of the clique, but she is the head cheerleader. Out of the three Heathers, Johantgen thinks her Heather has the most capacity for compassion.
“She goes through a journey in the show of finding out there’s more to life than being popular and doing everything your friends tell you to,” she said. “She has a good heart underneath the hairspray and shoulder pads.”
Johantgen, who lives in Philadelphia now, saw the movie a few years ago and loved it. Then she heard they made it into a musical. She bought the soundtrack and learned and loved all the songs. When she discovered Vulcan Lyric was doing this musical, she knew she had to audition. She thinks that the musical creators did a great job maintaining many of the movie’s iconic moments. There are adaptations, too, that make it even better.
“The music is so much fun,” she said. “And even though it’s set in the 80s, it’s a story that speaks to our time now. It’s something we all can relate to. Everyone has felt like an outsider.”
Like the movie, the musical is a “twisted revenge fantasy,” she said. “It’s dark, but hilarious. It’s kind of like a guilty pleasure, but still with a lot of meat and a lot of heart.”
And for those who know the film, there are croquet mallets, too.
Johantgen is thrilled to be working professionally as a musical theater actress. She graduated from Temple University’s musical theater program in 2014. She spent some time in Los Angeles and worked at a repertory theater in Missouri. Then, she was chosen for an acting apprenticeship at Walnut Street Theatre. Now she’s in “Heathers.”
Johantgen always wanted to be a performer.
“It’s in my chemical makeup,” she said.
And musicals are especially meaningful for her.
“I love when words can no longer express how you feel and you must sing. It’s so powerful,” she said. “Everybody has a strong connection to music. I’m fascinated by this method of storytelling.”
And she loves “Heathers.”
“It’s modern. All the music is contemporary. It’s 80s-inspired music to convey larger than life emotions and experiences,” she said.
But the important thing is that the story, which goes through darkness, emerges into light.
“It’s bringing the heart and the realness of such crazy, ridiculous situations,” she said. “Things can work out, no matter how twisted or terrible it seems.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Heathers: The Musical” and the Summer Festival
When: July 30-Aug. 16 (check the website for dates/times).
Where: The Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., Philadelphia.