Carrie The Musical

CarrieBy Philip Pearce

THE WESTERN STAGE’S new Main Stage offering is titled Carrie The Musical. But if you’ve seen the movie or read Stephen King’s novel, you’ll know not to expect cute production numbers or tunes you whistle all the way home from the show.

Like the famous film, Lawrence Cohen’s stage adaptation tells a classic American horror tale. Its carefully crafted plot and intense characters are not there to be studied or learned from. They exist to stir up a lot of raw emotion. In Act 1, it’s mainly pity for the pathetic, persecuted title character, who’s the victim of a loony religious fanatic mama and a lot of toxic high school classmates. In Act 2, it’s horror at the terrible revenge Carrie White wreaks on her enemies.

Jon Patrick Selover directs a predominantly youthful cast with an eye to strong character development and some nice visual shocks.

The performances are terrific. Annie Hunt has a frail vulnerability that’s so perfect for the early victimized Carrie that her transition to dark avenging angel is all the more creepy. The opening night audience recognized the power, imagination and commitment that had gone into her performance and gave Hunt cheers and a standing ovation.

Lydia Lyons is fearsome but also piteous as Carrie’s crazed mother Margaret, who smothers her daughter in sick, over-protective “love” as an atonement for the supposed “sin” of having conceived and borne her. Lyons projects the chaotic inner struggles of Margaret’s own adolescence with vocal and dramatic power, notably in “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance.”

From the moment Madeline Moeller struts into the school gym as the nasty Chris Hargensen there’s not much doubt who is going to be Carrie’s chief nemesis at Chamberlain High. Her minion in mischief is a lout named Billy Nolan, played with lanky disdain by Taylor Chambers.

Considering her early troubles, it’s surprising how many allies Carrie does have and sad that she ends up harming friends just as ruthlessly as she harms enemies. Sharp as a tack and putting up with no adolescent guff is a supportive girls’ gym teacher named Miss Gardner, played with a nice Southern swagger by Jaqui Hope. Helping her defend Carrie against the vitriol and bullying of her fellow seniors is Brian Carmack whose Mr Stephens, an amiable but firm English teacher, unwittingly links Carrie with a good-hearted athlete and would-be writer named Tommy Ross, played with charm and assurance by David Crane.

Michelle Skinner is strong and effective as Tommy’s girlfriend Sue Snell, who persuades her steady boyfriend not to take her to the prom but to ask Carrie instead. She then stalks the prom in jeans, preparing to become, like Horatio after the death of Hamlet, both a witness and a defense counsel for her friend Carrie White.

In the screen version the major scariness happens in the set piece horror sequences: Carrie’s menstrual blood flowing onto the floor of a high school shower; Carrie using kinesthetic powers to burn down a gym full of prom revelers. Last of all, the movie tacks on a surprise horror epilogue, set in a graveyard.

The musical is gentler. Carrie’s blood-stained shower happens off stage. We experience it only from her terrified and naive reaction to something she doesn’t understand and the callous scorn her classmates heap on her for being so biologically ill-informed.

The big fiery prom catastrophe is still there, center stage, and it’s as terrifying as you could want.  It takes the form of a kind of ghastly dance of death brilliantly choreographed by Joelle McGrath. Like a nightmare orchestra conductor, Carrie waves and jabs her arms above the writhing bodies of her victims with spooky lighting by Derek Duarte and thunderclaps by Jeff Mokus exploding all around her. It’s quite a sequence.

But with the cast always involved in Michael Gore’s pulsing rock score and Dean Pitchford’s dark lyrics, this stage version can transcend special effects and home in more closely on the story’s scary human and inhuman relationships. That spooky final graveyard moment is missing. Carrie the Musical ends with the grim inevitability of a Jacobean tragedy rather than the film’s final moment of gratuitous scariness. Stronger or weaker than the movie? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

It plays weekends through August 6th.