On Stage: High School Sweetheart

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Taking another stab at “Carrie: The Musical.”

Emily Zickler as Carrie White in Studio 2ndStage's "Carrie: The Musical." (Photo by Igor Dmitry)

Emily Zickler as Carrie White in Studio 2ndStage’s “Carrie: The Musical.” (Photo by Igor Dmitry)

After seeing Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage production of the ill-conceived “Carrie: The Musical,” I couldn’t help wondering what such a talented group of young actors were doing in a play like this? Another question: Why did the smart, creative Studio Theatre team decide to produce this ill-fated musical?

“Carrie” opened on Broadway in 1988 and promptly closed after just five performances, making it one of the costliest flops at the time. It is odd in the first place that anyone would want to make a musical out of Stephen King’s best-selling 1974 novel of teenage bullying and bloody horror. Brian De Palma — another master of horror — turned the book into a cult classic film — sans singing and dancing — about the outcast Carrie who has hidden powers. It works as a movie and gave relative newcomer, Sissy Spacek, an Oscar nomination for playing the title role.

There was a delicious irony in casting Spacek, who had once been a high school Homecoming queen. The dramatic highlight of De Palma’s cult classic is the horrible retaliation of what happens when the shy, outcast Carrie becomes prom queen as part of a revenge act of her meaner senior classmates. Unfortunately for them, they don’t know she has unusual powers.

Carrie White is bullied by her classmates because she doesn’t fit in and has been isolated from a normal teenage social life by her overprotective, religious fanatic mother who is determined to keep her away from the evils of adolescent sexuality. In an early scene, Carrie, poignantly played by Emily Zickler, rushes in from the shower in the school’s locker room with blood running down her legs. She is convinced she is dying and her ignorance about having a monthly period gives the bullying girls yet another piece of ammunition to taunt her.

Sue Snell, (Maria Rizzo), one of the girls who had participated in the bullying, begins to feel remorse and comes up with a plan to atone with a self-sacrificing idea — give up going to the senior prom and persuade her steady boyfriend to ask Carrie to be his date. The talented Rizzo, who was nominated for a Helen Hayes award for her role in “Gypsy” at Arena Stage, has a magical presence with expressive, haunting eyes. She makes us believe that a popular high school senior could give up the all-important prom night with her steady boyfriend.

Her boyfriend, Tommy Ross, a clean-cut Robert Mueller, reluctantly agrees, and therein lies the making of a disaster. Carrie shyly accepts, much to her mother’s opposition. Inexperienced and naive, Carrie has recently discovered she has telekinetic powers and in her righteous anger over the hateful act committed at the high point of her newly growing self-confidence, makes prom night one that no one will forget.

While the plot, with its bloody climax, is an unlikely choice for a musical, it had a successful off-Broadway revival in 2012 that stimulated the idea that it could have some success regionally. As to the question about why such a horrific and bloody play could be a good idea for a musical, the response is often “what about ‘Sweeney Todd’?” That musical, however, doesn’t take itself seriously. The same cannot be said of “Carrie: The Musical,” which is without fun or humor. More importantly, “Sweeney Todd” is the creation of Stephen Sondheim, one of the most talented composers of the last half of the 20th century. It is obviously unfair to compare Michael Gore’s musical score and Dean Pitchford’s lyrics to that of Sondheim. “Carrie: The Musical” isn’t in the same league with little that is memorable about the music or lyrics. Unfortunately, Michael J. Bobbit’s choreography is also unremarkable.

Thankfully, the young cast has remarkably good voices, hinting at what they could do with better material. They will likely be successful in more well-conceived productions. Luciana Stecconi’s minimalist set in the intimate 2ndStage works beautifully with only a suggestion of a high school gym with a well-worn floor and a basketball hoop at one end. Little is needed but a couple of chairs to represent Carrie’s home when she appears with her mother, Margaret White, in a painfully effective performance by Barbara Walsh.

Costume designer Kelsey Hunt has hit a perfect note in the mixed fashion avoidance styles of teenagers, who clean up well when they get all dressed up for the prom. Carrie’s dumpy skirt and out-of-shape cardigan help make the prom dress transition quite a surprise to her classmates and the audience.

King was ahead of the issue of bullying when he wrote his novel. It may be that and the success of “Glee,” the hit Fox television series, that stimulated the creators of “Carrie: The Musical” to dust it off to see what would happen. It would have been better to have left it on the shelf.

Carrie: The Musical” continues through August 3, 2014 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets are $40-$45 and available at 202-332-3300 and online here.

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