BWW Review: Young, Talented Cast Shines in the Very Dark CARRIE: THE MUSICAL at Richey Suncoast Theatre
"The end of one chapter and the beginning of another..." --a line from CARRIE: THE. MUSICAL
The freakiness of CARRIE: THE MUSICAL emerges even before the curtain rises. In darkness, a single clink of a piano key, like "Musica Ricercata" from Eyes Wide Shut. Then the sounds, like a Satanic version of the Beatles' "Revolution 9" on brown Woodstock acid. And it suddenly stops. A single light on Sue Snell, who is the only living teller of the tale. Soon, the curtain opens on a tableau of teens, disgruntled, scared, bullying. The iconic opening number ("In") begins, and we are thrust in the world of one of Stephen King's most famous works set to music.
When it comes to musicals that are more infamous than famous, CARRIE needs to be placed either near or at the top. With music by Michael Gore and lyrics by Dean Pitchford, CARRIE notoriously closed after five performances on Broadway in the 1980's, one of the biggest flops ever (it even spawned a book title: Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops). Since its initial flophood, it became a cult sensation, one of the most beloved off-beat musicals, raised from the dead. A new generation even got to experience its grisly greatness with a recent episode of Riverdale entitled "Chapter Thirty-One: A Night to Remember."
Richey Suncoast Theatre, under new leadership, certainly shows that it's a new dawn at this beloved local institution. By doing CARRIE, they are telegraphing to the theatre world that they are back and better than ever. And it doesn't hurt that they have some of the most talented young performers in the area to bring this terror tale to life--a tale of teenage bullying, telekinesis, warped religious rantings, abusive parenting, prom awkwardness and revenge, and the splattering of pig's blood. CARRIE: THE MUSICAL is a fast two hours, well-directed by Mitchell Gonzalez, with a cast of incredible singers. It's not perfect, but it sure is massively entertaining. If you've been to RST shows in the past few years, you may be shocked by the quality of talent showcased here. Yes, they've had talent in the past, but not this many of this caliber in a single show in recent years.
Leading the way in the title role is Shelby Zimmerman, a senior from Blake High School. Carrie may have a dark secret (things, from books to crosses, seem to move at her will), but she just wants to be normal. Unfortunately, she's painfully shy, meek, her face pale as if she wears a death mask, an Edvard Munch painting brought to life. Zimmerman nails Carrie's painfulness, her yearning to be normal amid a nest of bullies. There is such delight in her after the school's BMOC asks her to the prom, and we enjoy her joy when she dances, coming out of her shell. And Zimmerman has a killer voice. It's no Spoiler Alert to say that there is death at the prom in CARRIE, but there's also a sadness here, as she slowly walks over her dead peers, all dead by her telekinetic will. It's a chilling image in this day and age when reality is sometimes scarier than scary CARRIE. (While Carrie slowly glided above the dead, I overheard someone behind me say, "That's messed up!")
As Carrie's psychotic Bible-thumping mom, Margaret White, Victoria Stinnett is stunning. I remember five years ago, when I saw a not-very-good production of Camelot: In the middle of that misguided production, Stinnett floated above the rancidness as a beautiful-sounding Guinevere. (It was like having Laurence Olivier appear in Plan 9 from Outer Space.) And she's sensational here. In songs like "And Eve Was Weak," "Evening Prayers," and especially "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance," she displays an incredible range. I just wish she was dressed closer to a witch-hunting Puritan like Piper Laurie in the movie; Margaret makes her own clothes, but her garb seemed a little too modern for her tastes.
As the true villain of CARRIE, Rachel Knowles (a River Ridge senior) is wonderfully wretched as Chris Hargensen, the pretty, entitled rich girl who has no empathy for others. She is a Grade-A bully, a pouting princess. People may think Carrie is a monster, but Chris is the real Creature of Chamberlain High. And Knowles, perhaps one of the nicest performers offstage, plays her stuck-up vengefulness and villainy for all it's worth. Tall and lithe, she resembles a teenage Susan Atkins.
Best in the cast honors go to Jaden Waz (from Steinbrenner High) as Chris' boyfriend, Billy Nolan, who seems to thoroughly enjoy being a juvenile delinquent. Imagine Jeffrey Dahmer merged with Ted Bundy, add a little bit of J.D. from Heathers, and you have a teen psycho for the ages. He laughs inappropriately at a peer's touching poem, and slithers about like some kind of blonde reptile. Homophobic and disdainful of everything, Billy whirls around the stage, a Tasmanian Devil munching on Doritos and downing Jack Daniels. He's like a low-rent Christian Slater hopped-up on Phencyclidine, and as played by Waz, he's an abhorrently obnoxious hoot.
As good-guy Tommy Ross, Blake High's Dashawn McClinton soars in his touching poem solo. McClinton may not look like the head jock of a school, but he's such a major talent that we believe he is. There's a tender chemistry between him and Carrie, and I wish it was explored even more. Nicki Poulis is Sue Snell, and she captures the essence of the girl who tries to do the right thing and unwittingly winds up setting up a sort of small town Apocalypse. In the film, we weren't always sure of Sue's motives, as her teachers aren't, but here it's spelled out from the start. Poulis has a marvelous singing voice, and really gives us so many layers as the one good-hearted teen of the damned lot.
Beth Phillips is strong as Carrie's coach, Miss Gardner, a tough-as-nails gym teacher who gets to show her soft side to Carrie. Kristina Shappel is marvelous as Norma, Chris' pretty but sniveling friend who wants to get in on the action. (I like how Norma would rather text on her phone than say "I'm sorry" to Carrie.) The rest of the cast does a fine job, with stirring vocal harmonies: Raymond Brady Lay, Garry Grossman, Baylee Roberts, Amelia Priede, Tristen Bemden, Matthew Bracker, Liam Mahan, Brilee Gold, Emma Zervas, Bri Fawley, Selena Gonzalez, Thomas Gonzalez, Dustin Trafton, Reagan Stinnitt, Mariana Sarmento and especially Elisabeth Gaffney.
Director Mitchell Gonzalez guides the production with a sure hand. He has a good eye, and his staging is creative, bursting with energy. I like the little touches throughout, like a teacher photo bombing a prom pic or the same teacher separating inappropriate dancers with a pole. My only qualm with the staging would be Chris and Billy at the prom; they are upstage center, able to be seen by all, and it makes no sense that they are not ejected being so blatantly visible. Much better would be if they were on the sides, or if their silhouettes could be seen at the very back, so the audience doesn't have to suspend disbelief too much.
Suzanne Meck's choreography is quite suitable, although there was a merry messiness to "The World According to Chris." Music director Brooke Gonzalez has certainly done her job well--her cast sounds stellar. The only thing that is humdrum about the production is the set. Richey Suncoast has never been known for their sets, and if there's anything to improve for the future, this should be Number One. Some shows get away with the lack of a set--Cabaret, Chicago--and some shows need something more ornate. CARRIE gets by with the no-frills approach, but I can't wait to see what exciting sets await future shows.
CARRIE: THE MUSICAL proves that these are exciting times at Richey Suncoast. This is a musical seldom performed, so we know the new leadership has hutzpah along with major talent. With their upcoming season (as well as new blood at the top), Richey Suncoast is back to being major players in our theatrical community, taking risks and giving the public what it wants and needs. I wondered if older audience members would connect with the teen horrors of CARRIE, but they seemed to applaud loudest and were certainly wowed by the youthful performers. Even if CARRIE is not your bucket of pig's blood, it needs to be seen (the show ends its run on September 15th). Just be warned that it is exceedingly dark material, more so than most. It makes Cabaret look like State Fair.