BWW Reviews: Bloody Bloody Carrie White Terrorizes Studio Theatre
Not since Carrie. A phrase that has haunted creators of musicals ever since Ken Mandelbaum's famous 1991 book that looks at 40 years of Broadway musical flops. The original Broadway production in 1988 was a disaster, partly due to the writing, but more to do with original director Terry Hands' disastrous approach and minimalist concept. Closing 5 performances after the official opening night, Carrie cleaned up its blood, but not its money and went on to become one of the most famous and financial flops (although a certain Bono-tuned superhero of recent memory has surpassed that).
In Mandelbaum's book, he sums up the fact that Carrie was "a catastrophe... often campy... had made a better move than a musical... [and] made the mistake of attempting to musicalize that which could not be musicalized." Now all of this was attributed to the original production. The writers, librettist Lawrence D. Cohen (adapting his screenplay from the 1976 Brian DePalma film), and song writers Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore (Best Original Song Oscar winners for "Fame") were so disenchanted that for the next 20 years they would not let a professional production mount until 2009 when director Stafford Arima (Altar Boyz) pitched them a "revisal" version, which would ultimately play at the Lucille Lortel Theater Off-Broadway in 2012.
That brings us to the current production at Studio Theater's 2ndStage, which is Arima's revised 2012 version. According to an interview done at Broadwayworld.com, Co-director Jacob Janssen says, "The point is that you can have a great production of a bad play and bad production of a good play." Truer words have never been spoken, particularly about this production. Studio Theatre does excellent work and is always taking risks. When Co-Director and 2ndStage Artistic Director Keith Alan Baker helms a project you know that the stakes are raised. Studio 2ndStage has been producing these riveting works since 1988 (the same year as Carrie's debut) and they are always showcasing up and coming new stars alongside Washington theater stalwarts.
In the title role, Emily Zickler is one of those up and coming new stars. Having already been loved by the community theater crowd, this role is the perfect springboard for Zickler to make a name for herself in the professional theater circuit. Zickler plays Carrie with an uneasy tension, a true outsider that is on the brink of a meltdown due to her constant bullying from the "queen bee", Chris (Eben K. Logan). Zickler plays a soft character with a ginormous voice.
Starring with newcomer Zickler, is the fabulous Barbara Walsh. Walsh, a DC-native, returns "home" to Studio after her tour-de-force performance as Edie Beale in Grey Gardens a few seasons ago. Walsh adds depth to Carrie's overprotective nun of a mother, Margaret White. Walsh, following in the footsteps of Barbara Cook and Betty Buckley in the role, is a great blend vocally of Cook's stylistic Soprano, and Buckley's brassy belt. Walsh never forces her vocal power in the small Stage 4 and brings a sense of sadness to the character that makes her a little more sympathetic than she is written.
Together, the mother-daughter duo play against each other perfectly well, and as a credit to directors Baker and Janssen, plus Ms. Walsh and Zickler, they have very similar mannerisms and you really believe that Carrie is a product of her mother's creation. Having never seen the original production, I was curious as to whether Mrs. White's role was reduced, because I was itching to see more of Ms. Walsh and Ms. Zickler together, and their scenes were the highlight of the show.
Getting back to the piece itself, the perfectly cast and executed ensemble, shows the flaws in the writing. The always dependable Maria Rizzo stars as Carrie's frenemy, Sue Snell, who acts as a sort of narrator with scenes interpolated throughout of her testimony and interview with the authorities of the events that transpire. Unfortunately for the piece, Sue's journey from willing participant in the shower scene to her standing up to the bully is far more interesting than Carrie's destruction. I could see an entire show told through Sue's perspective and it may actually work better, if Carrie is relegated to a supporting character.
Likewise to Sue's journey, a lesser one is made through the gym teacher, Miss Gardner. Another local favorite, Jamie Eacker, provides us with the biggest hit song of the show, "Unsuspecting Hearts". I have been a fan of Eacker for a long time, both as an audience member and as a fellow artist. Eacker's beautiful voice sores and she blends with Zickler beautifully. Although a bit too young, Eacker plays Miss Gardner as a surrogate mother to Carrie who is trying to look out for her, especially after Sue convinces her boyfriend to take Carrie to prom. Starring as Sue's reluctant boyfriend, Tommy, Robert Mueller's fabulous voice is showcased in his lovely poem-song, "Dreamer In Disguise."
The remainder of the ensemble is written with a broad brush and unfortunately for the story become almost too comical. The powerhouse Logan as bully Chris has a large voice, and a large presence, and commands the stage when she enters, but her character is written so broad and so big that it is hard to believe that someone could be that mean. Likewise, her boyfriend / co-conspirator Billy, played cooly by American Idol alum, A.J. Melendez, has one moment of regret and in that moment is the only time that you feel any humanity in the villains. But with Melendez' cool attitude and handsome looks coupled with Logan's big voice and charisma make the revengeful couple interesting to watch on stage.
Baker and Janssen's use of Stage 4 at Studio is effective and Set Designer's Luciana Stecconi's high school gym set is wonderfully drab and dull and adds to the grim tale beautifully. The only technical glitch in this production is the sound. Music Director Darius Smith's 5 piece band is hard to hear clearly, yet when we do, they are spot on. The cast wore body mics, but I'm not sure they were needed in the small space, as there were some late mic cues where they didn't go live until a few words into the song and I had no problem hearing them without the mic.
Overall, Janssen's assessment is true. Studio has put on a "great production of a bad play". Carrie may be better suited for the pages of Stephen King's original novel, or on the screen in DePalma's film, but don't let that stop from you seeing this production. Theater is about taking risks and Studio 2ndStage has done that and the payoff is worth it.
Photo: Igor Dmitry