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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Brelby Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of ¡Americano! and The Wolves

DeAnna McMahan and Alixandra Giordano
Photo by Helen Morris
The 1988 Broadway production of the musical Carrie, which is based on Stephen King's popular horror novel, was notorious for having closed after running just a few performances and for basically being called one of the worst musicals ever. However, due to the show's score, which features several soaring songs, Carrie became a cult favorite and left a lasting memory for those who saw it. I saw a preview of the show in May 1988 and it has stuck with me ever since.

While the creators of the musical did not allow the show to be produced for years, assuming because they weren't happy with the Broadway production, twenty years after its initial failure, they regrouped, rewrote much of the book, revised lyrics, cut some songs, and added new songs to create a more successful version. That revised show ran Off-Broadway in 2012 and has since been produced internationally; it is currently being presented in a smartly directed, well-cast, solid production at Brelby Theatre Company.

For those who haven't read the novel or seen the 1976 film that starred Sissy Spacek, Carrie tells the story of a shy 17-year-old misfit girl. She is a loner and outsider who is picked on at school and, at home, her extremely religious and overprotective mother basically keeps her sheltered. When Carrie realizes she has telekinetic abilities, she uses her powers to get back at all of those who have wronged her.

The original Broadway production had minimal storytelling, ill-conceived costumes, some fairly horrible choreography, a couple of truly bad songs, and a set design that included an unexplained giant white staircase in the finale. Around 2008, bookwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, composer Michael Gore, and lyricist Dean Pitchford went back to an earlier workshop production of the musical they had held in 1984 that was more effective in telling the story, and started to create what is now the licensed version of the musical.

Cohen added valuable dialogue scenes that bring considerable weight to the story and flesh out many things that weren't well thought out in the 1988 production—Carrie's powers being one of the key elements that is now more effectively depicted, with a natural beginning that shows her discovering her powers and then honing them. Gore and Pitchford cut the bad songs from 1988 and added new lyrics and songs that are quite good. Also, while King's novel used yearbook comments, police reports, diary entries, and personal accounts to tell the story in a mosaic fashion, the 1988 production was told in a simple linear format. Now, present-day scenes are used to bookend the show with the main action depicted in flashbacks, and while the novel and original show were set in the 1970s or '80s, the creators have stated that, since the events in the story, especially those around bullying, are so prominent today, they decided to set the story in present time. All of these changes help to provide an interesting structure and current relevance to the piece.

Director Shelby Maticic is to be commended for taking on this somewhat challenging show. While the musical isn't quite as scary or horrific as the 1976 film, Maticic and her cast manage to provide some spooky and chilly moments on a very limited budget. It's nice to see how imagination, lighting, sound effects, and good acting and direction can create an effective sense of telekinetic abilities on stage. Maticic does an exceptional job deriving rich and effective performances from her cast, and her staging of the prom scene delivers some terrifying moments through the simple use of choreography and movement. The small Brelby space also provides a wonderful sense of intimacy as well as a strong connection to the characters.

Alixandra Giordano is perfect as Carrie. Her natural petite body, along with unkempt hair and a mousey appearance, effectively evoke the defenseless, shy, sheltered young woman who is fearful of the kids at school as well as her mother. Through Giordano beautifully stated performance, it's easy to feel Carrie's pain from all of the rotten things the kids, and even her mother, are saying and doing to her.

As her mother Margaret, DeAnna McMahan does a fairly effective job of walking the fine line between the two sides of this passive-aggressive person. At one moment, Margaret's a calm and completely caring mother; at other times she's a controlling, raging, religious fanatic. When Carrie begins to challenge her control, McMahan does a very good job in depicting a woman who doesn't know where to turn when she no longer has the upper hand.

Ixy Utpadel compellingly depicts the conflicted feelings of Sue, the good girl who comes to Carrie's defense, and Noah Lanouette is charming, kind and caring as Sue's boyfriend Tommy. As Chris and Billy, the bad couple who wreak hell on Carrie, Jesse Pike and Nicholas Earl are deliciously evil. Kiley Bishop and Kevin Fenderson do good work as two teachers at Carrie's school, as do the members of the ensemble who create unique characters.

Brian Maticic's set design does a good job, with just a few set pieces, a pair of doors, and two platforms, of creating the rooms in the high school and in Carrie's home. Shelby Maticic's costume design is character and period appropriate and Helen Morris' music direction delivers some nice harmonies from the cast. The score is somewhat challenging, with several songs that require exceptional singing abilities. While not all of the cast is quite up to the task of the vocal requirements, they are all good actors who never cross the line into camp and don't ever get unintentional laughter from some over-the-top moments where that could happen.

Overall, Brelby Theatre's Carrie has two very good actresses in the lead roles and a cast who are committed to ensuring the theme of bullying and the plight of outsiders and the religiously lost are front and center. It's a minimal yet imaginative production with very good creative aspects. Many of the iconic images from the film and those we've imagined from the book are on display here. Just the image of Carrie returning from the prom in her blood soaked dress is one you won't soon forget.

Carrie runs through March 1, 2020, at The Brelby Theatre Company, 7154 N 58th Drive, Glendale AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 623-282-2781

Music by Michael Gore. Book by Lawrence D. Cohen, Lyrics by Dean Pitchford
Bases on the novel by Stephen King
Director / Choreographer / Costume Designer: Shelby Maticic
Music Director: Helen Morris
Scenic Design: Brian Maticic
Lighting Designer: James Beneze
Props Design: Jen Gantwerker
Hair & Makeup Designer: Ian Rey Sausedo
Sound Design: Clayton Caufman

Carrie White: Alixandra Giordano
Margaret White: DeAnna McMahan
Sue Snell: Ixy Utpadel
Tommy Ross: Noah Lanouette
Chris Hargensen: Jesse Pike
Billy Nolan: Nicholas Earl
Miss Gardner: Kiley Bishop
Mr. Stephens: Kevin Fenderson
Frieda: Riley Jarol
Helen: Trystynn Burt
Norma: Ronda Felton
George: Gordon Barsotta-Northern
Stokes: Bear Golden
Freddy: Kyle Wallenberg