Carrie, The Musical

By Scott MacClelland

FREAKISHLY GUSTING WINDS and a power outage down Soquel Drive boded ill for Sunday’s performance at Cabrillo Crocker Theater of Carrie, The Musical, in the production that just opened Cabrillo Theater Arts’ fall offering. On Broadway, in 1988, the show was a flop, often a good reason to take another look.

On Sunday, the student production provided a surprising experience, even an eye-opener for those of us steeped in Stephen King’s novel and, more so, the terrifying 1976 movie version that starred Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Apparently inspired by Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, playwright Lawrence D Cohen and composer Michael Gore (with epithet-laden lyrics by Dean Pitchford) the show strikes a strange balance between early 20th century German expressionism and musical echoes of Broadway hit Les Miserables. Moreover, it takes a different tack from the movie version. Carrie’s transformation from bullied, naïve, late-blooming adolescent to taking violent revenge against her tormenters seemed almost abrupt. Blood—from Carrie’s hysterical reaction to her first menstrual period to the bucket of the stuff that poured on her at the high school prom—framed the set, designed by Skip Epperson, with three intimidating walls looming across the back of the stage. Even the close-up bits—the dark closet where Carrie is locked in by her mother and forced to pray to a Christian shrine studded with candles, and that also served as her bedroom—inspired claustrophobia.

Director Kathryn Adkins wrote a note that took the horror story of Carrie White to the bigger context of bullying, isolation, loneliness and abuse. Adkins said, “I was struck with the question, ‘If Carrie was a male who is bullied, becomes psychotic and wants retaliation, would she be the mass shooter of today?’” She adds, “Carrie’s telekinesis is today’s AK-47.” (The walls of the theater lobby were plastered with anti-bullying posters.)

The claustrophobia metaphor also extended into Carrie’s torment by her laughing and mocking school mates. (Photo above by Steve DiBartolomeo.) But of course, this is a musical and the songs and duets, often tender and loving, adds substantially to character development, even giving the religiously obsessed and bitter Margaret White moments of sympathy.

All of the cast, except Margaret White (Lizz Hodgin Weihrauch), are students in Adkins’ theater arts classes at Cabrillo, some including high schoolers. (Rehearsals began immediately after Labor Day and the show opened on Saturday night.) Marina Hallin is the hapless title character. Sue Snell (Elizabeth Lippa) is her sympathetic childhood friend. Sue urges her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (Colin Spears) to ask Carrie to the prom as a way to counter the bad treatment by the schoolmates. Carrie overcomes her initial rejection and accepts the offer at exactly the same time she uses her new understanding of telekinesis to assert her independence from her mother. By this time we have already seen Carrie’s ‘gift’ at play, throwing a teasing skateboarder off his board, making overhead suspended light fixtures to swing back and forth, levitating a large book and knocking over a living room chair.

School athletic coach Ms Gardner is also sympathetic to Carrie, but having forced the girls to apologize for their abuse, cements vengeance against Carrie by Chris Hargensen (Jessie Camarena), Norma (Samantha Rawls) and Chris’ weak boyfriend Billy Nolan (Justin D Burnett) who conspire to dump pig blood on Carrie after she accepts the prom queen crown, thereby precipitating the slaughter and mayhem of the penultimate scene.

Among the cast of fifteen on stage, a few get solos and duets, with varying degrees of vocal and acting skills, some emotionally very convincing. The pit band of eight musicians, directed from the keyboard by Don Adkins, had its plate full of eclectic musical bits and, in the solos and duets, haunting tunes included. One duet that stood out for me was the scene of Carrie and her mother of Carrie’s determination to attend the prom. It moved through a range of emotions, from love, to suspicion and anger and defiance.

Costumes were designed by Maria Crush, choreography by Sadie Rose Neiblum, and high-tech lighting by Carina Swanberg. At the apocalyptic finale to the prom scene, the middle of the three walls on stage collapses into a scene of fire and smoke. The character of Sue, who is subjected to interrogations by some official offstage voice as to what exactly happened, reminds us “Once you see, you can’t unsee.”

Carrie, The Musical plays weekends through November 10.