An energetic cast of new talents comes to the fore as Carrie the Musical makes it long awaited Melbourne premiere.
While the chance to see an infamous Broadway flop might be seen as only having curiosity value, this revised version is actually a rather infectious musical in its own right. In saving their 1988 musical from oblivion, determined creators Lawrence D. Cohen (book), Dean Pitchford (lyrics) and Michael Gore (music) substituted half a dozen songs and balanced the elements of paranormal horror with comic energy and heart. An ideal musical for a boutique production, the new version of Carrie can be as much fun for the cast to perform as for the audience to watch. I have seen Carrie in New York (2012) and Sydney (2013) and confess to being a big fan of the show.
Making a highly memorable music theatre debut, Emily Milledge is outstanding as Carrie White. Perfectly cast, Milledge’s fragile stance and helpless myopic squint make the relentless bullying Carrie suffers almost unbearable to watch, and the tender joy she conveys at Carrie’s burgeoning womanhood makes the dramatic climax all the more shocking. That Milledge contrasts this endearing vulnerability with a blazing vocal performance is quite extraordinary.
Director Terence O’Connell plays the supernatural drama straight, keeping energy levels high while avoiding excess. Scenes between Carrie and her mother are strong, especially the act one finale when Carrie’s telekinetic powers give her the upper hand.
If there is a misstep in Cohen’s otherwise slick and entertaining new book, it is the clunky framing device as sweet Sue Snell provides snatches of narration as she is questioned by unseen authorities about the fateful night of the Prom. Connected to this begin-at-the-end concept is the idea that the show begins in the fire-charred school, so the whole show is subsequently set in the fire-charred school. Having seen this design brought to life three times, I categorically state that it does not work, as the fire introduction is too brief to be absorbed, and just results in an ugly setting (through no fault of the designers).
Prolific lighting designer Jason Bovaird has worked his magic on the production, creating multiple locations in Jacob Battista’s neat, multipurpose set. Cinematic dissolves and crosscuts complement the filmic style of Cohen’s fluid book (Cohen also penned the iconic 1976 movie, in turn based on Steven King’s 1974 novel).
Careful thought has clearly gone into the illusions that portray Carrie’s power as these are very well handled. The climactic application of blood to Carrie is also achieved most far more effectively by giving us the iconic image of blood-drenched prom queen Carrie as soon as she is crowned, rather than just using red lights for the initial effect. Nicholas J. Reich’s sound effects enhance the spooky vibe.
Battista begins with the company dressed in black before adding splashes of colour. A clever angle is played by having Carrie look as though her mother has dressed her as a “mini me,” complete with high-buttoned black dress, gold cross and severe hair bun. The students’ prom costumes are individualistic but not as polished as they might have been. Carrie’s ill-fated prom dress, however, is truly gorgeous.
Gore’s score ranges from peppy light rock to gentle gospel to soaring power ballads, and all expertly handled by music director Andrew Leach, playing alongside four other musicians. It is testament to the mighty musical skill of cast and band, as well as excellent preparation by musical supervisor David Piper, that the vocals are perfectly synchronised despite the fact that the singers cannot see Leach.
Sound design, by Dave Kelly, is well achieves excellent balanced and clear without being too loud. Special mention of the fact that only surreptitious head mikes are used rather than invasive mouth-front mikes.
Chelsea Gibb reveals layers of emotional damage in Margaret White, drawing sympathy for a woman whose psychological repression of her daughter could be looked at as monstrous. Looking perhaps too attractive for the downtrodden puritan, Gibb nonetheless captures the mania bubbling just below the surface. Given some of the very best music, Gibb sings the role beautifully, making the most of emotional ballads “And Eve Was Weak,” “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance” and “When There’s No One.”
Blessed with a warm, twinkling smile, Kathleen Amarant projects a welcome ray of sunshine as kindly PE teacher Miss Gardener. Despite being close in age to the actors playing the students, Amarant projects a knowing maturity. Her singing of classic duet “Unsuspecting Hearts,” with Milledge, is liltingly lovely.
Hollie James brings a sincere and wide-eyed appeal to Sue Snell, skillfully ensuring that the snippets of recap do not become tedious. Jack O’Riley has the ideal mix of dreamboat looks and sympathetic soul to play Sue’s true love, sensitive jock Tommy Ross. O’Riley makes Tommy taking Carrie to Prom totally believable, and his strong chemistry with James makes “You Shine” one of the sweetest sequences in the show.
Chernae Howlett has a ball as original mean girl Chris Hargensen, the spoilt bitch who seems to take any kindness to Carrie as a personal offence. Ross Chisari captures the brutish, testosterone-fueled aggression and lust of a perpetual high school failure.
James, O’Riley, Howlett and the six other members of the talented ensemble each play a distinct character, harmonise superbly and perform Lisa Minett’s tightly drilled choreography with great flair. The ensemble is rounded out by Kristyn Bilson, Haydan Hawkins, Emily Mercurio, Ben Nicholson, Kiane O’Farrell and Rhys Velasquez. Solid support also comes from music theatre stalwart Stephen Wheat in the somewhat thankless role of Mr Stephens.
Music theatre fans will find plenty to enjoy in Carrie.
Carrie plays at Chapel off Chapel until 12 October 2014.
Man in Chair also reviewed Squabbalogic’s Sydney season of Carrie the Musical.
Photos: Christopher Parker