If you told me, or many of the other theater historians out there, a few years ago that the musical Carrie would be a widely produced show around the country in 2013, we would have laughed at you. The tuner was one of the biggest flops in history when it premiered on Broadway in 1988, and had been dead ever since. The primary book on musical flops is even titled "Not Since Carrie." But, the writers revisited the material a few years back and made improvements, and the show reopened Off-Broadway in 2012 to better results. So, now, Carrie is popping up around the country.
The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) is presenting Carrie as part of their Studio Series. This mounting features strong performances from the talented CCM students, as well as unique and effective direction.
Carrie is based on the novel by Stephen King, and tells the story of a sheltered, awkward seventeen-year-old girl who discovers she has telekinetic powers as a late puberty comes on. She tries to control her changing feelings, thoughts and abilities even as her oppressive mother Margaret, a religious fanatic, and her callous classmates taunt and abuse her. When Carrie is humiliated by a prank at her prom, she uses her powers to take vengeance on them all.
The score by Michael Gore (music) and Dean Pitchford (lyrics) is at its best when focusing on Carrie and her mother, with the music better than the lyrics in general. The changes from the 1988 version to the current score are all for the better, though the material for the other teens remains weak in spots and act one contains most of the best songs. Score highlights include the driving title song, which is Carrie's plea for acceptance and kindness, the dramatic "And Eve Was Weak" between mother and daughter, "Unsuspecting Hearts" and "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance."
The book by Lawrence D. Cohen is a mixed bag. There is sufficient dramatic tension, clear presentation of the story, and a proper balance in storytelling between teen angst and horror. However, some lines and scenes are true clunkers (like Sue telling Tommy that he is a genius for his suggestion to apologize to get over her guilt for mocking Carrie) and there is too much time away from the central relationships in act two.
At CCM, the talented students are up to the task of the often challenging material. As Carrie, Hannah Freeman supplies detailed and intense acting choices which bring forth the many layers of the role, including sympathy, rage, and a transformation from mousy recluse to blossoming young woman. She also proves to be a capable vocalist, handling the difficult songs well. As her mother Margaret, Jenny Hickman shows off impressive and powerful singing, and fully embodies the cruel, cold nature of the character. Alison Bagli is Sue, who serves as the narrator for the piece and provides sufficient vocals and a praiseworthy character arc containing the necessary tenderness. Emily Trumble (Chris) hits all the marks as the mean, brutal, and self-absorbed bad girl, and puts her big belt singing voice to great use. Eric Geil isn't a great fit for the character of jock Tommy, but his singing is wonderful and he displays the proper empathy and kindness toward Carrie that the role requires. Emily Schexnaydre struggles some with the vocal demands as Miss Gardner, but her acting is sharp in the role. Ben Biggers (Billy) and the always strong Collin Kessler (Mr. Stephens / Reverend Bliss) do well in less splashy parts. The remaining ensemble members do well executing their parts and maintaining their characters throughout.
Director Aubrey Berg provides an aptly stark and intense tone throughout, including a very effective opening, and uses the black box space extremely well. Though the use of the chorus seems a bit intrusive in a few scenes, Mr. Berg's work with Carrie is otherwise first rate. The choreography by Vince DeGeorge captures the angst, uncertainty, and insecurity of the teens and fits the modern pulse of the music. Steve Goers skillfully leads a talented six-piece orchestra.
The set design by Sarabeth Hall features nicely detailed set pieces scattered among several levels and on all sides of the black box theater. The lighting by Wes Calkin is professionally rendered and highlighted at the end of the show, and the costumes by Risa Alecci are period and age appropriate.
Carrie: The Musical features some excellent songs and, at times, a thrilling story which is a good fit for a youthful cast such as the talented and committed one found in this CCM production. The fine direction (musical and stage) and appropriate choreography and design, in addition to the great cast, make this Carrie worth catching if you find a ticket (the run is sold out as of now). The musical plays at CCM through 12, 2013.
On a related note – CCM's production of Carrie wasn't the regional premiere of the piece. Just a few weeks earlier, Showbiz Players, one of the better community theaters in the area, provided a well performed and mounted staging of the musical. Especially noteworthy in that production was the casting of 15-year old Melissa Campbell as Carrie. Despite her youth, this impressive teen provided magnificently impeccable vocals and a thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of the tortured girl which still has people in Cincinnati talking.