BWW Reviews: CARRIE is a Bloody Good Time
Look up "Broadway Flop" on Google, and Carrie is bound to be the first title to show up. Though the material still is a bit rough around the edges, Austin Theatre Project's staging of Carrie manages to straddle the show's unintentional line between camp and seriousness while finding a compelling story and interesting characters, brought to life by performers who could easily rival many a Broadway star.
What Austin Theatre Project has done with the material is truly commendable, especially when the musical's history is taken into account. The musical, based on the Stephen King novel and hit 1976 film, opened on Broadway in 1988. While stars Betty Buckley and Linzi Hateley were praised, critics crucified Debbie Allen's choreography, Michael Gore's music and Dean Pitchford's lyrics ("Kill the pig, pig, pig, pig/Kill him, kill him, kill him and make him bleed," was chided ad nauseam). The misaligned show closed after 16 previews and 5 performances. Carrie's been bullied more than the character for which it is named, and its failure has become the thing of legend.
But that was then, and this is now. Since 1988, Carrie's gone through judicious revisions. Carrie 2.0 premiered Off-Broadway in 2012, and while some critics said the show could still use some more revisions, the general consensus was that the show was much better than the 1988 version. I'm inclined to agree with both statements. The score's been de-80fied, and nearly half of the original songs have been scrapped or heavily rewritten. The best bits-particularly the songs between Carrie and her mother, Margaret-remain intact. It's the book by Lawrence D. Cohen that still needs work. Cohen, who wrote the screenplay for the 1976 film, has revised his work quite a bit, but there are still some lines that get unintended laughs. The pace of his book is also a bit problematic. Though the pace of ATP's production is blissfully quick, it's a bit of a problem that Cohen's book takes over an hour and a half to get the audience to the moment they came to see: a prom queen and a bucket of blood. Starting with the prom scene and moving backwards a la Merrily We Roll Along could give Carrie a bit of storytelling style while giving the audience what they want at the onset.
Sure, the material still needs some work, but Austin Theatre Project works wonders with what they've got. While the musical fails to decide whether or not to focus on the bullying Carrie faces at school or the abuse she encounters at home, director Jeff Hinkle does exactly what Stephen King did so brilliantly in his novel. He makes it a story about both. The show is about the unkindness Carrie experiences from virtually everyone around her, and Hinkle places equal focus on what's going on at school as he does on what's going on at home.
Hinkle's design team keeps things simple but effective. The set, designed by Jim Schuler, is comprised of a bare white wall, a canvas for Rich Simms' projected scenery. And Veronica Prior's contemporary costumes fit the characters well and immediately tell the audience who each person is. The six piece band, led by Musical Director David Blackburn, has a strong rock sound.
But it's Hinkle's cast that really brings Carrie to life. The hardworking ensemble manages to take the stock characters of high-school mean girls and dumb jocks and give them a bit of depth and insecurity. Amanda Serra, who was delightfully perky and peppy in ATP's Godspell, is downright evil as teen queen bee, Chris. As Miss Gardner, Carrie's P.E. teacher and surrogate fairy Godmother, Wendy Jo Cox believably oscillates between the gentility she shows to Carrie and the toughness she shows to the other girls. Cox's sweet, soothing voice is just icing on the cake. As Sue Snell, the only teen girl who shows Carrie any kindness, Rachel Hoovler has the dubious responsibility of anchoring the show (the entire musical is framed as a flashback from Sue's point of view). The framing device gives Sue a character arc that can easily feel plopped onto the show. Hoovler manages to give her character's story the right amount of purpose and seriousness without pulling focus from the main storyline. As Sue's boyfriend Tommy, Daniel Cline gives a charming performance while also giving the popular guy a touch of goofiness which makes his character far more interesting.
And then there's the stratospheric talents of Audrey Johnson and Cathie Sheridan. Both women tackle incredibly challenging roles. Carrie and Margaret are roles that require powerhouse performers that can attack the vocal and acting demands of the characters. Johnson and Sheridan both throw the gauntlet down. Johnson brings an intensity to her vocals but manages to come off as a long-abused wallflower. Her performance is absolutely captivating and heartbreaking. Sheridan's acting and singing both give you chills. She nearly blows the roof off the Dougherty Arts Center, and she walks Margaret up to the line of Mommie Dearest crazy without going full-tilt camp. Sheridan's take on Margaret is terrifying in all the right ways. While there are lots of reasons to see Carrie, Johnson and Sheridan alone are well worth the price of admission.
CARRIE, produced by Austin Theatre Project, plays the Dougherty Arts Center (1110 Barton Springs Rd, Austin 78704) now thru November 9th. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $25-35. For tickets and information, please visit www.austintheatreproject.org.