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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Unexpected Heart Outshines Horror in
Balagan Theatre/Seattle Theatre Group Carrie

Also see David's review of Anything Goes


Keaton Whittaker and Alice Ripley
The horrifically reviewed and short-lived '80s musical stage version of Stephen King's wildly popular novel and Brian De Palma's smash hit film Carrie received a long awaited makeover Off-Broadway blood from, well a pig's ear, by trying their hands at it. Though handicapped by underwhelming special effects, director Louis Hobson gets to the heart of the tale, and yes there is one, thanks to an earnest and talented cast headed by a trio of Broadway vets, the youngest of which, 17-year-old Keaton Whittaker astonishes vocally and viscerally as the wallflower with telekinetic talents.

The story adapted from his screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen, is well known (it has also been remade a as a TV miniseries, spawned a semi-sequel, and returns to the big screen this Friday starring Chloe Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her mad Mother Margaret). A timid teen girl, Carrie White is tormented by both the "cool" kids in her senior high class as well as at home where her religious nut mother has kept her sheltered from the wicked ways of the world. Carrie isn't even aware of what her period is, and when it comes, she is humiliated by her peers in the gym showers. But Carrie feels the rumbling of her powers, and a path to the near destruction of her small Maine town is charted when nice girl Sue Snell convinces her hunk with a heart boyfriend Tommy Ross to escort Carrie to the senior prom. Crazy Margaret warns Carrie it's a bad idea, but thanks to Carrie's bourgeoning powers, is helpless to keep her from going. And it's gonna be a night they'll never forget (as one of the variable but much improved songs by composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford promises) because bitchy teen queen Chris and her loutish boyfriend Billy cook up a plot to get Carrie elected prom queen and then douse her with a bucket of pig's blood. Warm-hearted girls gym teacher Miss Gardner smells a teenage rat, but no one can stop the pair's plan once it has been set in motion, and ... well, by the end there is hell to pay, as even the few who have never seen any version of Carrie may surmise.

The Balagan/STG production is under-powered in its special effects and in sorry shape regarding its tinny sound design, which results in lost lyrics, and an over-amped band is a further detriment. But, re-set in a contemporary high school milieu in which bullying takes on the darker hues we now know come with it, Hobson and his game cast manage to make the tale tug at our hearts. Keaton Whittaker, small of stature, big of voice, and effortlessly real as a special girl who just wants to fit in, has a real star turn here, and shows off her vocal chops impressively in the driving title song, and then her lyrical side on "Why Not Me?". A Tony winner for Next to Normal, Alice Ripley knows her way around playing damaged goods, though here the character is more significantly damaging to her daughter. Ripley’s icy, controlled/controlling, tightly wound Margaret is far more subtle than the approach of Piper Laurie in the original film, or Betty Buckley on Broadway, and she proves her mettle as a unique singing actress on her featured numbers "And Eve Was Weak" and the show's stand-out ballad "When There's No One." With much less stage time and material, Kendra Kassebaum wows as Miss Gardner, and her soaring "Unsuspecting Hearts" duet with Whittaker is arguably the finest musical moment in the show.

Larissa Schmitz as Sue and Kody Bringman as Tommy bring depth to their uber-sympathetic characters, and deliver lovely vocals on "Dreamer in Disguise," "Only You See" and "You Shine," while Tessa Archer and Andrew Brewer flesh out their stock baddie roles as Chris and Billy as much as possible. Playing down the laughable pig's blood story tangent was a good idea, though it was more interesting when it seemed less like it was just Chris and Billy's handiwork, and more of a mob mentality with other students in the mix.

Despite obvious budgetary constraints, the scenic and lighting design by Tom Sturge, especially his bombed out high school façade of a set, are effective. Choreography by Daniel Cruz is smooth and peppy, devoid of the bad camp aspect that marred Debbie Allen's work in the Broadway original, while R.J. Tancioco's musical direction is worthy when the small but talented band isn't blasting out over the singers.

Despite shortcomings, I shed unexpected yet appropriate tears at this Carrie and will be in line to see if the new film version can deliver more shivers.

Carrie runs through October 26, 2013, at the Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; Tickets: $30-$45 (877-784-4849 or balagantheatre.org).



- David Edward Hughes



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