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BWW Review: Circuit's CARRIE THE MUSICAL Takes the Hearse Instead of the Limo to the Prom

From what I've gathered, the original production of CARRIE THE MUSICAL would have been a dream project for Bialystock and Bloom, THE PRODUCERS: There's something eyebrow-raising about taking Stephen King's novel CARRIE and drenching it - not just in blood, but in music and lyrics. Evidently, Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford felt up to the task, and with a book by Lawrence D. Cohen, the musical version became a theatrical reality. However, it's a "slippery slope" they tread: Do you play something like this "straight" - or do you decide to go in the direction of "camp"?

First of all, as far as subject matter is concerned, it's moot discussing the legitimacy of adapting such material; for example, look at Andrew Lloyd Webber's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS or either of the relatively recent musicals focusing on the unlikely figures of Andrew Jackson or Alexander Hamilton. Moreover, for those who hunger for something more substantial, there's plenty to savor in the possibilities of probing character in song - poor "Carrie White," abused at home and at school (with only a sympathetic gym teacher as a poor substitute for a "fairy godmogther" in this Cinderella-from-Hell opus); the religion -obsessed "Margaret White," who, because of her own former frailties, seizes upon her daughter as both shield and 'punching bag"; and those truly frightening "evil stepsisters" (more like sorority sisters) who are the true villainesses here - mocking, gleefully cruel (they're like the bitches in the cult film HEATHERS, only multiplied); the "golden boy" "Tommy," whose capacity for growth and appreciation has lain dormant until awakened by his initially begrudging "relationship" with Carrie; and, ultimately, "Sue," whose innate decency doesn't "seal her fate," but assures her survival.

Circuit Playhouse has taken this difficult material and given it over to one of the few directors in Memphis who not only could realize the strengths and weaknesses in such a piece, but could give CARRIE THE MUSICAL as good as it could possibly get: The invaluable Courtney Oliver, who finds "grace notes" another would likely overlook. Not only does Ms. Oliver direct, but, along with Assistant Tamara Wright, she energizes the stage with inventive and energetic choreography. (Oliver doesn't have the luxury of the film version's pyrotechnics and special effects, and the climactic scene in the gym is a triumph of choreography and "suggestion".) Oliver has taken a fairly straightforward approach to the material; instead of playing it for "camp value," she strives for substance and meaning. While its October staging might suggest an emphasis on horror, that element is jettisoned in favor of characterization. The songs, too, extend and find shadings in the characters; some of those melodies (especially the duets between characters) are actually rather haunting (I particularly like the fact that the poem that Tommy has written will become the lyric of a tender musical number near the end of the play).

CARRIE THE MUSICAL remains respectful of its source material. Despite the bloodiness of it all, it's oddly more wistful and sad than scary: Carrie's loneliness, the desperate aspirations of her mother, the compassion of the gym teacher, Sue, and Tommy - these are all little lights extinguished by the cruelty of "Chris," the cretinous "Billy," and the insensitive and self-absorbed "Norma" (her attention riveted on her cell phone). As a result, CARRIE THE MUSICAL has too much emotional weight to be dismissed as a mere "horror story." We know the inevitable sadness that awaits both protagonists and villains - and the memories that the survivor will have to confront and endure.

The cast here is uniformly excellent - lots of new faces in impressive "turns." Maggie Robinson's "Carrie" is a sad little underdog, genuinely blossoming when prospect for happiness presents itself; as her mother, Carla MacDonald could well have channeled aspects from a previous part, that of "Norma Desmond" in Andrew Lloyd Webber's SUNSET BOULEVARD (after all, Norma is as obsessed with movies as ""Margaret White" is with religion). It would have been easy for the vocally splendid MacDonald to careen into excess (as the Oscar-nominated Piper Laurie did in the film version); thankfully, she eschews that approach and interprets the character with just enough restraint to make her tragically real. As the ill-fated "Sue" and "Tommy," newcomers Cayley Nicole Smith and Isaac Middleton are touching and three-dimensional; and Christina Hernandez is believably tough and kind as the gym teacher who wants to protect Carrie. Brooke Papritz's soulless "Chris" and Dane Van Brocklin's libido-driven "Billy" are well suited to each other, and though I am ashamed to admit it, their needling of sadsack Carrie White provides a kind of enjoyment. (It's fun, too, to watch Noby Edwards in the brief but nasty role of "Norma," oblivious to anyone she isn't texting and willing to pull the wings from a butterfly without a moment's notice).

The special effects are used sparingly, but come at the right, unexpected moments (Zo Haynes' lighting design is a great help here, as well as the sound design by Zach Baddreddine). Circuit once again utilizes an efficient main set: a basketball hoop here, curtained windows there, prom banner - all are on the periphery of the main performing area. CARRIE THE MUSICAL closes October 25.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)