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BWW Review: CARRIE, THE MUSICAL at Desert Stages Theatre

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This horror musical is brought back to life at DST

In 2020, it felt like the world had gone sideways and there was nothing but bullying everywhere you turned; it only seems fitting that many shows in the Valley are now performing shows dealing with the subject. This is something that everyone is not only familiar with but has experienced in some form or another in their lifetime. Desert Stages Theatre's (DST) production of Carrie, the Musical does its best to portray the horrors of the particular emotional traumas of adolescence and parental abuse while mixing in some telekinesis, revenge, and a little pig's blood to boot.

For those unaware, the plot of Carrie, based on a 1974 book written by Stephen King, centers around a gawky, socially inept girl, Carrie, trying to survive her tumultuous teenage years. Her mother, Margaret White, a trifecta abuser, shields her from the outside world by withholding important life lessons, insults and beats her into submission, and purposefully isolates her from others in the school/community using her religious fanaticism. As if this wasn't enough, the kids at her school ostracize Carrie because of it and relentlessly tease her in the process.

It is evident that Director Chris Chavez was passionate about this story and its message. Chavez used this platform to showcase that Carrie's revenge wasn't as horrific as everyone's treatment of this girl who just wanted to be loved. In particular, I loved that he used this show to partner with the UBU Project https://ubuproject.org/ whose mission is "the prevention of youth suicide, addiction and bullying through social/emotional arts integration residencies." He consistently uses the arts to make the world a better place by elevating it to the next level. He then assembled a cast of young adults that can belt out an angsty tune that knocks you on your butt and in the next scene croon a love song, dripping with intention and saccharine. I appreciated his non-traditional casting for Carrie. As someone who also struggles to meet the unrealistic beauty expectations of women in the arts, I felt like Chavez's Carrie represented a win for non-traditional casting and representation on stage.

As an avid Stephen King reader and someone intimately familiar with both bullying and abuse,

BWW Review: CARRIE, THE MUSICAL at Desert Stages Theatre
Photo by JT Turner/Jack Sprat Consulting

I felt personally invested in the story of Carrie White when first reading it so many years ago. When the audience is first introduced to Lauren Youngstedt, who plays the titular role, and she belts out the first lines of the song Carrie, I was instantly connected to her. She brings an honesty and emotionality to the role that feels unforced and relatable. As we follow her through the gamut of her emotions throughout the show, Youngstedt transitions through each of them seamlessly. I look forward to watching her grow as a performer.

As Carrie's initial antagonists, Sue Snell and Chris Hargensen, performed skillfully by Miranda Bellows and Tawny Audi respectively, have standout voices. Bellows can coo you a lullaby while Audi can rock out numbers in a phonebook. They are perfect foils to each other creating a mounting power struggle between all three. They are the ones to follow in the future. The characters of Tommy Ross and Billy Nolan, played by Dalton John and Evan Kaushesh respectively, also provide great complementary foils for themselves and are pawns for the ladies. John's performance gained strength while he dueted with both Youngstedt and Bellows, but Kaushesh's vocals often soared above the crowd which pleasantly took me by surprise. This ensemble is hands-down the best young adult ensemble I have seen onstage. Kudos should be given to all of them.

BWW Review: CARRIE, THE MUSICAL at Desert Stages Theatre
Photo by JT Turner/Jack Sprat Consulting

Kathleen Berger, playing Carrie's mother Margaret, was shiver-inducing, from her ethereal vocals to her bible rantings. I have never white-knuckled a seat in a theatre before. I can't say that I would welcome that feeling again but it relays just how successful Berger was in her portrayal of Margaret. Her and Youngstedt's chemistry was palpable, and her realization scene was heartbreaking and terrifying because we see the love she has for her child as well as the steely-eyed face of a sociopath in the throes of her religious delusions.

As the gym teacher, Miss Gardner, Jennifer Adams brings a different kind of chemistry into the mix. While she is written as a sympathetic mother figure, Adams brings a touch of parental empathy into Carrie's life, but it seems like it's almost at arm's length or self-serving. It's not enough to save her in the final destruction scene. The same can be said for clueless Mr. Stephens, played by Henry Male. This is actually a better move because it puts even more sympathy at the feet of Carrie reinforcing Chavez's anti-bullying message that you can't just do the minimum and expect a positive outcome. You have to do more.

Overall, this production needed more attention to its resources. It's so hard to watch a show where the performers in the show are having an authentic moment and it disappears into whispers because the mics go out or the sound levels are off. The accompanying music was often louder than the singers as well. Also, transition scenes were in complete silence - there were only two scenes that had any background noise, making the set changes drag on laboriously. This would have been a great opportunity for some creepy music, evangelist talking, or school noise to fill that void. There are additionally some costumed pieces that were uneven throughout the show; it wasn't enough to detract fully from the show, but enough to be conversational and wonder about.

Despite minor inconsistencies, Carrie ticked the boxes on so many other levels. The music direction by Jennifer Adams was spot on, the choreography by Tina Khalil was fun (I wished that there had been more, but the score didn't call for it), the lighting was spooky and perfectly eerie, and the set design will most assuredly haunt some nightmares. It transported me back to high school to a time of uncertainty, hormones, and hell. It's certainly a horror in and of itself, but couple it with this cast and crew, and you have a recipe for chills, thrills, and yes, even a few spills (apologies, of course, to the pig).

BWW Review: CARRIE, THE MUSICAL at Desert Stages Theatre
Photo by JT Turner/Jack Sprat Consulting

For tickets and information on future shows at DST, please visit www.desertstages.org or call 480-483-1664.

DST's production of Carrie partnered with the UBU project to have open conversations about bullying and how it affects mental health and everyday lives in teenagers. To read more about their mission, please visit https://ubuproject.org.


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