Chicago Theatre Review
Carrie the Musical – Bailiwick
What is this? A grey and jagged cavern full of cracks and crevices, each stuffed with horrid instruments and burning with garish light. From within the rolling ants of fog and haze, demonic shapes her and jibber and the air is filled with the shrieking laughter of the damned. Is this that fiery pit that awaits the cruel and wicked? No, it is worse: a high school gym locker room and set for Carrie the Musical. Masterfully engineered and lighted by Stephen H. Carmody and Charles Cooper, respectively, this is the prime oyster that should hold a glowing pearl but instead cradles a lump of grit. Based on the novel by Stephen King, the new musical shows us that while a love of the source text and a wholehearted attempt to talk about “issues” may go into making a great show, they are nowhere near enough by themselves.
We begin with the interrogation of Sue Snell (Rochelle Therrien) soul survivor of the massacre at Chamberlain High. She recounts for us the sad story of Carrie White (Callie Johnson) the schools odd-girl out, raised on kicks and scorn and the rather unhealthy faith of her rather unhealthy mother Margaret (Katherine L. Condit). But now, at the cusp of womanhood Carrie, has begun to develop telekinesis and a sense of independence, and it’s a toss up which gives her more power. In an effort to make up for all the harm that she has come to the schools ugly duckling, Sue forfeits her right to go to the senior prom and convinces her beau Tommy (Henry McGinnisss) to being an interest in Carrie and ask her out instead. But due to the wrath of Sue’s best friend Chris (Samantha Dubina) and Margaret’s fears of her little girl entering a world of sin, the wheel sets in place to deliver night that Carrie, and all of Chamberlin, will never forget.
I could forgive Carrie its faults: its tepid music and forgettably “nice” lyrics that say little and move nothing forward, its really quite awful force-choke acting, the unimaginative ensemble of high school archytypes we have seen a thousand times before; if it could just figure out what it was trying to say. But the show batters us around the head will all sorts of fishy morals: high school is the pinnacle of your youth and promise, highs school is a terrible and savage place you were luck to get out of alive; we harm our children by ignoring them, we harm our children by controlling every aspect of their lives and whipping the devil out of them; we shouldn’t practice Chris’s cruelty but Sue’s deceitfulness is A-OK. Poor Miss Snell is treated awfully cavalierly, less as a character than a device and sock puppet moralizer: her credibility is stretched particularly thin claims to see into Carrie’s inner self though she only encounters her twice and, by her own admission, has “scarcely drunk a hundred words” of her utterance. But the cream of the spoiled crop belongs to the moment when the entire male ensemble admonishes their girlfriends in song with “Eighty bucks for a tux/ I’d better get laid.” My. God. I’m sorry, but do you want us to pity these young men and their malicious female counterparts when they are slaughtered in a psychical rampage?
Sadly, hampered by callow song and grease thin book, most of the cast could not muster more than your typical line up of groping high schoolers, though there were some welcome exceptions. Kate Garassino as Ms. Gardener the gym teacher mustered something of a life beyond that of “helpful but innate school authority” and provides some of the rare sparkles of humor. Condit could have made a splendid Margaret, for she has a piercing voice and a good grasp of letting love and christian fury scramble across her countenance like puppies fighting to get out a sack. But alas, she was hemmed in by lyrics that didn’t get much better than “He. Will. Buuuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrn you!” repeated a half dozen times, and lines slopped from a stew of scripture with no clear comprehension of why she says what she says or acts how she cars. It is Johnson at the end of the day who carries (ha) the show, and even she needs to get momentum going. Much of her act efforts, playing the state of isolation and misery rather than any forward action, resembles that of a sad Slow Loris, eyes wide and tear wetted, arms swinging for something to hold. As her powers become mastered and the story allows Carrie to interact with and Johnson to play off of others, we begin to see a girl bursting with promise for both good and evil. By act two we cherish Carrie’s determination to make a night as a normal, loved girl, are cheered by her pure relish of tiny joys, and are chilled by the glimpses of danger in silent challenges of her mother’s rule, stares as simple and honed as a knife blade.
There are moments when Carrie the Musical shows shadows of what it might have been. The sight of that fallen angel, baptized in blood and wreathed in flames, power walking across her classmate’s corpses and then dissolving into a little girl, crying for her mother because she knows not what she’s done are guaranteed to give the flesh goose pimples and the heart a sore ache. But without a strong and sold script to bind her, or moving songs to give her purpose, not even Johnson’s best efforts can hold that angel in place. And so that poor girl, like so many daughters and sisters and friends, consumed by petty cruelty, that woman whom could rivet our attention and serve as a martyr to our consciouses, dissipates into the hazy air of the locker room leaving behind nothing but an ugly stain on the memory.
Sadly, Not Recommended
Reviewed by Ben Kemper
Victory Gardens Theater 2433 N Lincoln Ave
Thur/Fri/ Sat at 8, Sun at 6
Tickets cost $40, available at www.victorygardens.org or 773 871 3000
For more information on this or other shows please visit www.theaterinchicago.com