Review: “Carrie: The Musical” Music by Michael Gore. Lyrics by Dean Pitchford. Book by Lawrence D. Cohen. Based on the novel by Stephen King. Produced by Balagan Theatre and Seattle Theatre Group. Choreography by Daniel Cruz. Music Direction by R.J. Tancioco. Directed by Louis Hobson. With Alice Ripley, Kendra Kassebaum, Keaton Whittaker, Larissa Schmitz, Kody Bringman, Tessa Archer, Andrew Brewer. Now through October 26, 2013 at The Moore Theatre.
Yes, the most notorious flop Broadway musical in the history of American musical theater…a show so shockingly misconceived that it coined a phrase and a book about flop musicals, “Not Since Carrie”…a show that has had more lives than Shirley MacLaine and more second chances than Lindsay Lohan….CARRIE: THE MUSICAL finally hits a Seattle stage with the Balagan Theatre/Seattle Theatre Group co-production just opening at The Moore Theatre complete with Tony Award winning actress Alice Ripley as crazy Mother White. Everyone’s favorite “I can’t believe this is a musical” has had a long and winding road from its earliest days in workshop in 1984 to its first major staging by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988 followed by the disastrous Broadway run that same year. It seemed “Carrie: The Musical” was indeed dead at that time but the show managed to survive, largely due to a hardcore group of fans who realized that “Carrie” was something special. The creators of the show began resurrecting the show in 2009, rewriting much of the material and the latest incarnation of “Carrie” returned Off Broadway in 2012 for a solid run and impressive reviews. “Carrie” seemed to be “The Little Engine That Could” of floppo/bizarro musicals.
But, why IS “Carrie” so special? Is it because it’s a Broadway musical based on a Stephen King novel about a teen aged girl with telekinetic powers who gets abused at school by bullies and tormented at home by her crazed, Bible pounding mother? Or, the fact the first big scene in the show, Carrie gets her period in the gym shower and her cruel classmates taunt her and fling feminine hygiene products at her? Or, the big finale where a vengeful classmate dumps a bucket of pig blood on Carrie during the senior prom which causes Carrie to go on a telekinetic killing binge, laying waste to her entire class and half the town? Or, is it the abuse she suffers at the hand of her crazy mama which includes Carrie being locked in a “Jesus Closet”?
Well, it’s all that but the real lasting success of “Carrie: The Musical” really boils down to the fact that Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford wrote some gorgeous songs for the show…and, specifically for Carrie and her mother. Many of the original theater critics and audience members noted that “And Eve Was Weak”, “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance” and “When There’s No One” were incredibly complicated and evocative songs with huge power and emotion and resonance. Musical theater fanatics who appreciated the songs and a few people who continued to perform them after the original flop of the show, like Betty Buckley who played Mrs. White on Broadway, kept the show alive for many decades. The love for the GOOD songs in “Carrie” also helped erase the memory of the BAD songs in “Carrie”. Most critics and the audience agreed that the “High School Teen” parts of the original production and the awful songs that went along with them, helped sink the show back in 1988.
Cut to 2009 and the original creators begin work on rewriting “Carrie: The Musical”…in a musical theater world where “Spring Awakening” has already helped re conceive how you portray teen characters in a musical. And, it’s also a world where the television show “Glee” has had a huge impact on how musical theater relates to teen aged audiences and performers. The new and improved “Carrie” changes the dynamic of its plot and gives more strength to the teen characters as the new version makes “Carrie” a story less about a teen with telekinetic powers and a crazy religious mama, and more about the effects of bullying and the complicated nature of relationships between high school students. Yes, kids! You can be a Freak and have a crazy psycho mama but it WILL get better!
(Until they force you to retaliate and kill them all with your awesome telekinetic powers…)
So, does the new “Carrie” work as an enjoyable piece of musical theater?
Yes, and no.
Yes, because the beautiful songs and the primary relationship between Carrie and her mother are still the heart of the show. And, yes, the reworking of the high school material has strengthened that plot…although, the songs given to the teen characters aren’t as strong as the mother/daughter material but they still hold up. But, I will argue that the teens still aren’t as interesting as the relationship between Carrie and her mother. The success of Carrie is largely due to that classic operatic drama between the two characters…the affairs of the other kids aren’t nearly as deep or profound. And, we really don’t need to see anymore of the Sue/Tommy love affair. No one cares…just get to the psycho bloodbath!
The other chief complaint against “Carrie” that for some reason they still haven’t figured out how to stage some not very complicated special effects. Granted, no one who’s ever produced “Carrie: The Musical” has the deep pockets of Walt Disney but if Disney can make Mary Poppins fly over the audience and Bert walk around the proscenium, I don’t understand why Balagan can’t find a local magician or circus professional to help them figure out a few levitating tricks. The effects on hand in this production are pretty bland to the point of being non-existent.
And, some sound design would have helped, and in more ways than one. A clever sound designer could have come up with some effects to aid the illusion of the telekinetic powers. And, a good sound designer/engineer needs to be immediately hired because the sound quality in this production is atrocious. The Moore is notorious for being a nightmare acoustically but this show suffers from some serious microphone issues and a horrid sound mix. Actors are frequently inaudible and the orchestra frequently drowns out the biggest voices on stage. If Balagan wants to do big boy shows in this old big boy theater, then they need to hire a good sound person to work out the kinks. It’s inexcusable.
There is some good news on the design front for this show. I’ve chewed out Balagan for their last few shows for their ragged production design. Yes, the sound is dreadful for “Carrie: The Musical” but they wisely hired Tom Sturge to do the set and lighting design and while the set is fine, the lighting design for this production is excellent…probably the best lighting I’ve ever seen in a Balagan production. Mr. Sturge’s lighting work here is crisply executed and full of nuance and meaning. Lighting wise, it’s a very sharp show.
It’s also a sharp show from an acting perspective. While this is primarily a female-centric show, both Andrew Brewer as the thuggish Billy and Kody Bringman as the good guy, Tommy do fine work as the puppets of the stronger willed and written female characters. Both of their respective puppet masters, Tessa Archer as the mean girl Chris and Larissa Schmitz as nice girl Sue are each persuasively and appropriately mean/nice in a way that lifts their characters from being bland stereotypes. Both actresses give warm shadings to their roles that make them interesting and believable. Kendra Kassebaum is also fine as the nice gym teacher Miss Gardner, though frankly, she seems a bit young for the role. Ms Kassebaum appeared to be about a day and a half older than her “students”.
But, it’s all eyes on the mother/daughter duo of Mother White and her Carrietta and both Alice Ripley and Keaton Whittaker do equal justice in these iconic roles. Ms Whittaker is appropriately winsome as the downtrodden but plucky Carrie…she’s not quite the sad sack that Sissy Spacek was in the original film but Ms Whittaker is also far more believable as a 17 year old. Her tiny stature probably helps her there, but it’s the big voice that seals the deal and the yearning and pain of the character are all reflected in the powerful vocal performance by Ms Whittaker.
And, speaking of big vocal performances, it’s time to talk about the little Tony winner in the woodpile, Miss Alice Ripley and her spooky performance as Margaret White. It’s a strange take on the character who’s traditionally been portrayed as a severe, religious hysteric with a rigid backbone and a tendency towards repressed violence. Both Piper Laurie, in the original film and Betty Buckley on Broadway played Margaret as a rather violent and very scary physical presence. Both Carrie and the audience had reason to be terrified by Mother White. But, Ms Ripley goes a different route, underplaying the rigidity of the character; her Margaret is much looser and even a bit sloppy…you’re not quite sure if she’s as dedicated to the power of Christ as some of her predecessors in the role. Part of that could be attributed to the odd costuming, by Kathryn Dawson, of the character…Ms Ripley’s Margaret lounges around Chez White in a slip and unbuttoned floral housecoat…it’s like Margaret might be getting ready to audition for a Tennessee Williams’ play. It’s an odd choice.
But, vocally, Ms Ripley is very commanding. Her second act lament, after Carrie leaves for the prom, “When There’s No One” was a heart breaking ode to loss and betrayal that left the audience breathless in its execution. You could FEEL the goosebumps being generated by the audience as Ms Ripley tore into that song. It was dramatically, the most powerful moment of the night and Ms Ripley proved why she’s got a Tony on her mantle; she gives a powerhouse performance in this show and she’s worth every penny it took to bring her to the stage at The Moore. She’s a Big Broadway Star giving a Big Broadway Star performance. And, she’s worth checking out.
Who’s this for? Fans of alternate musical theater. Stephen King fans. Gleeks.
Who’s this not for? Fans of traditional musical theater. Stephen Foster fans. People irritated by shitty sound mixing and awful acoustics. People expecting this to be a campy, “Bad Theater” piece of intentional schlock. “Carrie: The Musical” is a serious show for grown ups. You’ll have to wait for the Re-bar/drag queen parody if you expect anything else.