Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Carrie, the Musical
I saw a Broadway preview of Carrie and became obsessed with the musical due to its score, which featured several excellent songs. Many other people were also taken by the show, including director Stafford Arima who, 20 years later, worked with the musical's original creative team to fix a lot of what was wrong with the 1988 production. That revised version premiered Off-Broadway in 2012 and got good notices. That is the version that Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre is presenting in a solid production with smart direction that includes some very original touches and a cast who deliver effective portrayals.
Carrie tells the story of a sheltered and shy 17-year-old misfit who is an introverted loner. Carrie is bullied and picked on at school, and kept in the dark about many things and violently abused by her religious and over protective mother, Margaret. When she realizes she has telekinetic abilities, Carrie uses her powers to get back at those who have wronged her.
For this revised version, bookwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, composer Michael Gore, and lyricist Dean Pitchford revisited the 1984 workshop script which had a clearer telling of the story than the 1988 Broadway version which had minimal dialogue, a lot of unnecessary dancing, and barely gave any understanding of Carrie's powers. For the updated version, Cohen added back from the workshop script and expanded valuable dialogue scenes that help flesh out the characters and the story, while also providing a natural arc for Carrie discovering and sharpening her telekinetic abilities. The book now frames the story as a flashback with one of the characters being interrogated by the police as to the events of what happened, similar to how King's novel used police reports and diary entries to tell the story in a non-linear fashion.
Gore and Pitchford cut many of the songs from the 1988 production that weren't as good and added back songs from the workshop production; they also wrote new lyrics for some of the previous songs that help refine the plot and flesh out the characters, and they added several new songs that are quite good. The creators said they wanted to highlight the topic of bullying, so they moved the time period to the present, unlike the 1970/1980 setting of the novel and original Broadway production. All of these changes help to eliminate the pieces that didn't work in 1988 while also providing a current relevance to the show.
For the Desert Stages production, director Chris R. Chávez does a fantastic job with a show that has many challenges. He ensures the performances are realistic and truthful and that they never border on camp or elicit unintentional laughter. He also makes certain that the creepy and horror elements in the story are presented appropriately. Chávez adds some great original directorial touches throughout. These include having Carrie be present in both the beginning and end of the show, helping to shift the focus correctly to her, which is not something the 2012 Off-Broadway production did, where it was on Sue. He also provides some nice foreshadowing into the song "Carrie" by including Carrie's classmates during the first part of the song where she talks about what she would do to them if she had the ability. Chávez makes great use of the very good burned down high school set design by Ally Baumlin; I like the nice touch of having a set of onstage lockers be used as the prop storage area whenever someone needed to bring a prop out during a scene.
The only small quibbles I have with the direction concern a prop that is shown during the song "When There's No One" that, in doing so, has much less of a shock impact when it's brought out toward the end of the show, and, as great as it is to see Carrie at the very end of the show, since that moment focuses on finally seeing someone you never really noticed before, it would have been a nice touch to not only see her as she walks away but also, even briefly, to also see her face. Those are my only small issues in an otherwise excellent production where Chávez manages to make the show eerie and creepy (the prom scene is very well staged) and also ensure the characters, even the bad ones, are fleshed out. I even was a little choked up at the end, and not just for Carrie but for the outcome of several characters, which is something I can't say I experienced at either the Broadway or Off-Broadway production of the show.
The cast are all very good. Lauren Youngstedt is fantastic as Carrie. She perfectly depicts the shy and afraid outcast with her downtrodden eyes, fidgety gestures and hands that are always nervously clutching at her clothing. When she realizes what she's capable of, she becomes a different person, with the weight of the world finally off of her shoulders. Her powerful singing voice does well on Carrie's many songs. Kathleen Berger is a powerhouse as Margaret. I've seen this role played as either an almost complete monster or a quiet individual with a mean streak, but Berger manages to let us also see that Margaret is a victim of the events in her past. During the song "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance," we see on Berger's face the memories of the men in Margaret's past, instead of having the song simply be Margaret shouting at Carrie to make her aware that men will always end up hurting you. This works incredibly well and is something I never got from either Betty Buckley or Marin Mazzie's performances, who played Margaret in the Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, respectively.
The supporting cast do a good job in depicting these mainly archetypal characters. As the good girl Sue Snell, Miranda Bellows manages to get across the conflicted feelings she has for her role in what happened to Carrie. Tawny Audi is fantastic as the bad girl Chris Hargensen, with a singing voice that soars and facial expressions that are pure evil. As their boyfriends, Dalton John is sweet and sincere as Tommy and Evan Kaushesh is equally as good as Billy. As the two adult characters at the school, Jennifer Adams is charming as the sympathetic gym teacher and Henry Male derives some nice laughs as a teacher at the school. In the supporting ensemble, all of whom add moments of levity and horror to the show, Bailey Gorman has good comic timing as Tommy's schoolmate who has a crush on him.
Jennifer Adams' music direction derives bright and strong vocals from most of the cast. Tina Khalil's choreography is modern and stylized which works well and the costume designs from Tamara Treat are period and character appropriate. Brady Fiscus' lighting design creates some eerie stage images, though on opening night the spotlight operators weren't always appropriately focused on the action. Kenseye Fort and Brianna Fallon's sound design provides some creepy sound effects, thought the musical tracks sometimes slightly overpowered the performer's vocals.
With stellar direction and a great cast, those who are fans of Carrie, or who have heard about the musical but haven't seen it on stage, should not be disappointed with Desert Stages' production.
Carrie, the Musical runs through October 31, 2021, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre at Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, please visit desertstages.org or call 480-483-1664.
Music by Michael Gore. Book by Lawrence D. Cohen, Lyrics by Dean Pitchford