'Carrie: The Musical': Theater Review

Jason Niedle
'Carrie: The Musical'
The new production may be an improved version of the problematic show, but its issues remain unsolved

The legendary flop musical based on the Stephen King horror novel and classic Brian De Palma movie gets a superlative immersive staging, following its 2012 off-Broadway overhaul.

A landmark musical-theater disaster in its original 1988 Broadway run, which closed after only five post-preview performances, Carrie received a leaner off-Broadway update at New York’s Lucille Lortel Theatre back in 2012. Critics hailed the revisal as an improvement, though not enough to fully embrace the misbegotten musical. Determined to rewrite the show’s bloody history, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts has revived it yet again, this time with immersive scenic design and innovative staging. Now if they could just do something about that score...

Arriving audience members are escorted from the lobby down a hallway dressed like a post-apocalyptic high school with flickering fluorescent lights, battered lockers and abused desks and chairs. From there they pass into the backstage area and are seated in bleachers surrounding a high school gym where the action will play out. As the lights dim, Cricket Myers' chilling sound design takes over, with pops and hissing over distant sirens. Sue Snell (Kayla Parker), a popular girl with a soft spot for class piñata Carrie White (Emily Lopez), recalls for police the events leading up to a blood-soaked prom night as high school students run and gambol around her in super-slow-motion.

The opening ensemble, “In” does a fine job of setting the stage, introducing the major players and providing a sense of the milieu, a typical suburban high school, though not too typical. Early on when Carrie starts menstruating in the gym shower and the other girls close in on her, the first few rows of the audience are swung into place, boxing in the action and dynamically changing the production's configuration. Used again later during intimate scenes, it’s an effective concept employed just enough not to require Dramamine.

Read more 'Carrie': Off-Broadway Theater Review

Trying to set things right after Carrie’s public shaming, Sue prods her all-around good-guy boyfriend Tommy (Jon Robert Hall) into taking Carrie to the prom. Meanwhile class bitch Chris (a prickly and spiteful Valerie Rose Curiel) plots with her bad-boy beau Billy (a buffoonish Garrett Marshall) to further humiliate Carrie.

In the titular role, Lopez demonstrates full physical and emotional commitment, employing a dynamic range in her singing that serves Carrie well. She's strong when she needs to be but also vulnerable and wary, especially in her scenes with Misty Cotton (Miss Saigon) as her homicidal evangelical mother.

Cotton approaches her part with the seriousness of Lady Macbeth, pairing her rich though sometimes raspy mezzo voice with Lopez's soprano in “And Eve Was Weak,” her biblical explanation for what happened in the shower. Rapturous but fittingly stilted in their first-act finale, “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance,” Cotton elicits pathos with “Stay Here Instead,” as she implores Carrie not to go to the prom.

That number is a distant cousin to the Witch’s song, “Stay With Me,” from Into the Woods, except that I remember how that song goes. As for “Stay Here Instead” and the rest of the songs in Carrie, they are mainly forgettable from the first note to the final curtain — a form of undiluted auditory vanilla so bland it’s practically white noise. Therein lies the show’s insurmountable problem. If a musical is to be judged by its music first and foremost, then no matter how smart and innovative Stephen Gifford’s scenic design, or how authentically acted or symphonically sung by the cast, Carrie will always be hamstrung by its score.

Read more Carrie: Film Review

Composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford are still active writing for TV and film in careers that have garnered them Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes and Tony Awards. They wrote “Footloose” for the film of the same name (with a screenplay by Pitchford), and Gore wrote the Whitney Houston hit “All The Man That I Need.” But neither ever topped their early success with Fame, for which they won Oscars for Best Score and Best Song. And with all due respect to Irene Cara’s number one hit, if that’s as good as it gets then in retrospect there’s no reason to expect more from Carrie.

Lawrence D. Cohen, who wrote the screenplay for Brian De Palma’s classic film based on the Stephen King novel, has tightened his book into a smarter, more streamlined form, deleting the infamous “Out for Blood” number that opened act two (high school boys stripped to the waist jump into a pig pen and slaughter a few while the audience is serenaded to deafening squeals). In its place is an ensemble number about primping for the prom. (“I’ll be there with the best-looking guy/When we dance the last dance, I swear I’ll cry.”)

For that climactic prom scene the curtain opens to accommodate the downstage area backed by a mural of a Venetian scene, the evening’s theme. Beyond the mural is the house where the audience would normally sit for a less audacious Carrie. Jim Steinmeyer’s illusions get a full workout in the finale as well as earlier scenes in which Jesus figurines tremble at Carrie’s telekinetic touch. For a moment, it looked as though they were dancing a chorus, a la Monty Python’s Life of Brian. And when a living Jesus descends, you half-think the creative team is going for laughs, which suggests that Carrie might benefit from a little more humor.

Not that Carrie isn’t fun. Under Brady Schwind’s superlative direction and in the hands of his devoted and determined cast, it may never see a better staging. But there's no redeeming that score.

Cast: Emily Lopez, Misty Cotton, Kayla Parker, Jon Robert Hall, Valerie Rose Curiel, Jenelle Lynn Randall, Garret Marshall, Bryan Dobson, Michael Starr, Andante Carter, Ian Littleworth, Kimberly Ann Steele, Rachel Farr, Teya Patt, Carly Bracco, Lyle Colby Mackston, Kevin Patrick Doherty, Chris Meissner, Amy Segal

Director: Brady Schwind

Book: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King

Music: Michael Gore

Lyrics: Dean Pitchford

Choreography: Lee Martino

Set designer: Stephen Gifford

Costume designer: Adrianna Lambarri

Lighting designer: Brian Gale

Sound designer: Cricket Myers

Illusions: Jim Steinmeyer

Presented by La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman, The Transfer Group

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