SpeakEasy's "Carrie": Whether to Be Wary

Elizabeth Erardi as "Carrie"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Prospective Photo)

“Carrie, the Musical”, the last production of Speakeasy Stage Company’s season, is legendary for all the wrong reasons. Its past is checkered even by Broadway standards. Based on the 1974 novel by Stephen King, its first adaptation was as a film in 1976 with a screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen. Cohen subsequently wrote the book for a 1988 live musical version done by The Royal Shakespeare Company, no less. His two collaborators were Michael Gore for the musical score (who won an Oscar for the title song for “Fame”) and Dean Pitchford for the lyrics (who had been Gore’s collaborator on “Fame”). It was poorly received in Britain, and is most infamous for then-leading-lady Barbara Cook’s almost being decapitated by some recalcitrant scenery. Ms. Cook (wisely?) declined to follow the production to its Broadway incarnation, where it lasted five performances after opening. The myth has it that it closed due to awful reviews; in fact, they were actually mixed, but the investors abruptly disappeared. The back story myth was solidified in Ken Mandelbaum’s 1991 history “Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Musical Flops”. It became, along with “Moose Murders”, the short-lived failure that thousands dubiously claimed to have seen. And so it stayed in memory (despite a 1999 film sequel and a 2002 made-for-television film, as well as a 2013 film remake), until in 2012 its original creative threesome approached King with the idea of presenting a limited-run new version. (King reportedly responded that he’d be “thrilled out of my undershorts”). It lasted a month, and didn‘t transfer to Broadway. Thus SpeakEasy’s announcement that it would be presenting this scaled-down musical was a very intriguing one to say the least. Surely if any company could resuscitate “Carrie”, this troupe could.

Not surprisingly, this reincarnation (or resurrection, if you will) of the work is a worthwhile one. It may not be the creepfest it was in other forms, but, as ably directed by Paul Melone, the storytelling is in good hands, with most of the cast creating characters far more believable than the caricatures that too much camp might have produced. What we have here is a hugely talented cast fulfilling the roles of Carrie White (Elizabeth Erardi), her mother Margaret White (Kerry A. Dowling), Sue Snell (Sarah Drake), Chris Hargensen (Paige Berkovitz), Tommy Ross (Joe Longthorne), Billy Nolan (Phil Tayler), Miss Gardner (Shonna Cirone), Mr. Stephens/Reverend Bliss (John Costa), George (Daniel Scott Walton), Norma (Amanda Lopez), Freddy (Stephen Markarian), Stokes (Jorge Barranco), Helen (Alexa Lebersfeld), and Frieda (Adena Walker). There is a lot of fresh young talent on view, anchored by a powerhouse performance by Dowling, who’s matched by the complex portrayal of the central role by newcomer Erardi, initially a victim who gets her ultimate revenge.

With a strong story (which most know well, so won’t be belabored here), even more potent in this age of awareness of high school bullying, the success of a musical like this also would hinge on the strength of its score. The songs include in act one: “In”, “Carrie”, “Open Your Heart”, “And Eve Was Weak”, “The World According to Chris”, “Evening Prayers”, “Dreamer in Disguise”, “Once You See”, “Unsuspecting Hearts”, “Do Me a Favor”, and “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance”. In act two: “A Night We’ll Never Forget”, “You Shine”, “Why Not Me?”, “Stay Here Instead”, “When There’s No One”, “Alma Mater”, and “The Destruction”. It’s a varied, enjoyable score well played by Musical Director Nicholas James Connell and his quintet of musicians. The introspective numbers “Dreamer in Disguise” (by Longthorne), “Once You See” (by Drake) and especially “When There’s No One” (heartbreakingly poignant as sung by Dowling) stand out. On several occasions, the chorus gets to sing extraordinarily well together.

The technical crew have conspired to make this scaled-down version work on Speakeasy’s modest stage. The Scenic Design (a high school gym and locker room, the Whites’ chapel-like living room) by Eric Levenson is realistic and fluid, thanks to some well-coordinated set changing. The imaginative Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, eerily effective Sound Design by David Reiffel and terrific Projection Design by Seághan McKay, as well as the credible Costume Design by Emily Woods Hogue, all contribute to the naturalistic feel of the production. The energetic choreography by Larry Sousa also helps establish the realsitic high school milieu. And what of the telekinetic pyrotechnics? They’re wisely restrained, cleverly just supernatural enough to support the growing realization of Carrie’s evolution. The eagerly-anticipated bloodbath is well executed (you should excuse the expression).

In the end, we have a feeling that we’ve all been here, though we’ve lived to tell about it. As Sue sings on two occasions during the play, “Once you see, you can’t unsee.” While this revision may not be what some wanted it to be, it should be accepted on its own merits, not on whether it meets one’s expectations of revisiting its earlier versions. It’s certainly no longer worthy of the characterization as a flop, nor is it the Great American Musical. Taken on its own terms, it’s a fun ride. One can’t resist. It has to be said: It’s bloody entertaining!

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