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Chicago by John Olson

Carrie: The Musical
Bailiwick Chicago at the Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater


Callie Johnson
Carrie, that legendary Broadway flop so notorious it inspired the title of a book about Broadway flops, has finally made it to Chicago so we can see for ourselves if it deserved this ignominy. Well, we can sort of see for ourselves. The version performed by Bailiwick Chicago is the revised version that played Off-Broadway for a month in 2012, but presumably it better reflects the intentions of its authors, all of whom were involved in the revisions. What we can see at the Richard Christiansen Theater is a very solid and refreshingly different musical.

And why shouldn't it be? Stephen King's original novel is a suspenseful horror story based on some quite common anxieties—adolescent fears of being different and unaccepted in high school. Its characters are people with deep emotions, from the kids' desire to fit in, through Carrie's isolation and her mother's religious fervor. These are emotions worthy of song and Carrie's supernatural story is perfectly appropriate for the poetic and symbolic genre of the musical. And who better to bring it to the musical theater stage than songwriters Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, who wrote songs for that iconic 1980 movie musical of high school life, Fame (Pitchford also wrote the screenplay and lyrics for the teen movie Footloose as well). These original songs by Gore and Pitchford (eight of which are new for this version, replacing seven songs of the original Broadway production) capture the spirit of teen angst. Lawrence D. Cohen, author of the original screenplay has written the book.

Carrie, of course, has been camped up in parody versions for years and the grand scale of the carnage along with Margaret White's over-the-top fundamentalism make it a likely target for such satire. But the musical's authors, and the production's creative team, know how to play on the primal fears embodied in King's story with enough emotional honesty to avoid camp. This version focuses more on the high school kids, grounding the tale in the reality of teenage insecurity. The story is told in flashback by Sue, the only survivor of Carrie's prom night massacre; and the opening number, "In," explains how essential it is to be popular if one is in high school. The musical is at once on solid footing, and this production, featuring a talented young cast that easily reads as high school age, is on its way. The number is staged by choreographer Brigitte Ditmars who provides crisp, youthful moves throughout. Michael Driscoll, a member of the Bailiwick Collective making what is probably his highest-profile directing assignment to date, is impressive—leading the cast to an edgy tone that straddles a line between realism and fantasy without ever risking camp.

Callie Johnson as Carrie shows all the fragility of the lonely teen and wins our sympathy as her solos give us a window into her heart. As costumed by Raquel Adorno (and the uncredited hair designer), she bears a strong resemblance to the iconic images of Sissy Spacek from the Brian DePalma film. Rochelle Therrien plays Sue as a kid with genuine remorse, in a portrayal that elicits more sympathy for Sue than we might expect. Henry McGinnis is Tommy Ross, Sue's handsome sensitive-jock boyfriend who takes Carrie to the prom, and with Sue and Tommy there's an underlying decency as they change from reluctant bullies to holding an empathetic view of Carrie. These changes to the script's focus, together with songs like "In" and the second act opener "A Night We'll Never Forget," give the show a nuanced point of view toward most of the kids, rather than painting them completely as villains (though there's a certain disconnect with that decency in the prom scene when the kids laugh at Carrie after she's been doused with pig blood). The "in crowd," in addition to Sue, Tommy, Billy and Chris, includes Kasey Alfonso, Molly Coleman, Conner Meinhart and George Toles—all strong performers who establish a sense of individuality for each of their characters. (The opening night cast also included Damon J. Gillespie, who left the next day to join the New York cast of Newsies.)

Nothing nuanced about Samantha Dubina and Sawyer Smith, though. They're absolutely evil as the villainous Chris and her boyfriend Billy, with the two coming off more white trashy than the film incarnations, but well matched for each other. The script doesn't spend as much time on mother Margaret as the original film did, and the effect is, again, more sympathetic. The role is well sung by Katherine Condit, a veteran of Broadway and national tours. Kate Garassino and Ryan Lanning are the kind but tough gym teacher Miss Gardner and the principal, with Garassino a particular vocal knockout in her song "Unsuspecting Hearts."

Music Director Aaron Benham and his six-piece band accompany the solid vocals of the cast in making the case for the Gore/Pitchford score, long described by those who heard it one way or another as deserving a better fate than its 1988 five-performance Broadway run.

Technically, the Bailiwick team does an impressive job creating Carrie's telekinetic effects in the studio space that is the Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens. There's not a lot of it in the earlier scenes—just a few things moving inches here and there—but the final massacre is effectively shown as havoc is wreaked on Stephen H. Carmody's set of suspended high school lockers while Charles Cooper's lighting and Patrick Bley's sound effects help our imaginations picture the rest. While praise is due to these folks as well as technical director Christopher Kristant, stage manager Heather Stuck and her assistant Megan Kowalsky, there's no denying that a perfect production of Carrie would have greater resources to really stun us with Carrie's special, horrific powers. It could happen someday.

Meanwhile, we can thank Bailiwick Chicago for its smart, well-sung and imaginatively produced presentation of this notorious musical that deserves a place in musical theater literature.

Carrie: The Musical will run through July 12, 2014, at the Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Tickets are available by phone at 773-871-3000, online at bailiwickchicago.com or in person at the Victory Gardens Box Office.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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