adaptation, Carrie: The Musical, Cristina Ann Oeschger, horror, independent theatre, indie theatre, Jason Hoover, Lawrence Cohen, musical, Ray of Light Theatre, revival, San Francisco, Stephen King, Theatre review, Victoria Theatre
“All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.”
– Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes were Watching God
Everyone can remember the feeling of being picked on as a child. The shock, the humiliation, the wishing for help that you know won’t come. It doesn’t matter if the torment lasted a short amount of time or an extended amount of time, if it stayed verbal or became physical, if the victim eventually overcame it or succumbed to it – what matters, and what is most vividly remembered, is how much it just hurt. It’s an experience few people can genuinely forget because it’s a time in their life when realised that they have no power.
Carrie White has power. Having been tormented by classmates for as long as she can remember (and raised under the harsh discipline of her Christian fundamentalist mother), she suddenly develops telekinesis. The changes in her life could mean a change for the better. Unfortunately, this change in her life is marked by an event in which Carrie is pushed too far, changing her from the tormented to the tormentor.
I don’t really see the need to try and protect from “spoilers”. If you don’t know the story of Carrie, then I’d like to welcome you to the surface world for the first time in centuries. The debut novel of Stephen King, it’s often placed alongside stories like Catcher in the Rye in the way captures melodramatic adolescent emotion (which is not to say King’s prose is akin to that of Salinger). It was adapted into Brian De Palma’s classic 1976 horror film, which got an horrendous 1999 sequel entitled The Rage: Carrie 2. The novel was adapted again, by King himself, for a 2002 made-for-tv film that was ill-received (thanks in no short part to an ending that missed the entire point of the story). The novel has recently been adapted again for Kimberly Price’s new film version, set to open on the 18th of this month [UPDATE: my review for that version is now here].
In short: if you actually don’t know the story of Carrie, you have plenty of opportunities to find out. As such, I’ll be speaking about the story in detail, because the problems with this adaptation lie in its blatant misunderstanding (if not willful ignorance) of said story. I’ll get to that in a moment.
I’ll start with what’s good about this production. As the title character, high schooler Cristina Ann Oeschger (yes, they got age-appropriate actress to play Carrie White) does a fine job. Her voice has good range and she perfectly embodies the superpowered social outcast. The entire cast perform their roles effectively, with most of the focus put on Courtney Merrell as the starry-eyed Sue Snell. A few seem to have trouble hitting the really high notes, but they can each carry a tune. This serves them well in moments when the music from the speakers threatens to drown out their voices, a problem also present in Shotgun’s recent Bonnie & Clyde.
Speaking of Bonnie & Clyde, this production also uses a three-walled “barn” as its set, with various images projected on to it. This made sense in Bonnie & Clyde (the two were actually hiding out in a barn), but set designer Kelly Tighe’s choice of using it here is not as clear. The set’s walls move and, with a lot of help from Erik Scanlon’s projections, become a classroom, a library, a gym, as well as the interior and exterior of the White residence. Though sometimes distracting, the projections do create the appropriate atmosphere for each scene.
I shall digress no longer in covering the play’s problems, of which there are many. I was only familiar with the musical adaptation of Carrie by reputation. Its original 1988 production still stands as one of Broadway’s most notorious flops not based on a Marvel comic and directed by Julie Taymor. Surprisingly, I researched that production and found that its book was written Lawrence Cohen (erroneously credited in the playbill as “Leonard”), who rewrote the book for its 2012 revival. This is significant because Cohen is the same writer behind the screenplay to De Palma’s classic. As such, you think he’d know better how to make these characters work in dramatised form.
When the signature image of your story is a girl covered in blood as she burns with rage and humiliation, it’s safe to say the story isn’t a feel-good comedy. I can’t speak on the ’88 production, but Cohen’s new adaptation strips the story of any sense of tension, terror, or tragedy. And when you can’t make Carrie a tragedy, something is wrong.
Owing a bit more to the book’s “true crime” structure, the play is framed with Sue Snell being interrogated by unseen police officers in the aftermath of what’s happened. A nice nod to the source material, but it’s also the play’s first problem: Carrie is a co-star in her own story. This is undoubtedly the story of Sue. Carrie and others get their own scenes, but Sue is the main protagonist.
The second problem is that the songs by Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore come straight out of Broadway Musical 101 with clichéd instrumentation and lyrics. I see in my notes that I kept writing down the words “Wicked” and “High School Musical” whenever a new song started. Every song is one you’ve heard time and again in every feel-good Broadway musical of the past fifteen years. Which leads to the play’s biggest problem: it’s a feel-good musical. This isn’t King’s tragic horror story, it’s She’s All That with the twist ending being that everyone dies. The Disney Channel-choreography by Amanda Folena doesn’t help matters any.
The “good” characters are benevolent to the point of being saccharine. The “bad” characters are each given their own songs in which they explain that they aren’t all that bad; as if to confess to the audience that they’re victims of plot convenience. No one is complex, no one is dangerous. Even Margaret White comes off more as a religious Mother Goose rather than terrifying matriarch. Carrie’s tormentor Chris (Riley Krull) is given a song in which she more or less explains that she bullies Carrie because Chris herself just needs a hug. All of the story’s sharp edges have been sanded down into smooth curves.
But the biggest disappointment comes courtesy of this production in particular. There are certain tales that, whatever one may think of the story itself, have become famous for their trademark spectacles: King Kong ends with the ape climbing the Empire State Building; Phantom of the Opera has the falling chandelier; the story of Christ ends with the crucifixion. You already know the climax of Carrie from every promotional photo ever used for it. So imagine my chagrin as I sat in anticipation, eyes glued to the stage, listening to the music crescendo, only to see Carrie White be doused with a bucket of… water. Oh sure, they say it’s blood. But shining a red light on an actress does not a blood-shower make. Nor does it help when said actress can’t leave the stage and both the projections and light transitions reveal her only to be wet, not bloody.
And that is Carrie: The Musical in a nutshell: it’s a watered-down, PG-13 take on a story that should terrify you. It’s an ill-advised attempt at light comedy with a story that is a tragedy to its very core. This is exactly what non-theatre people think of when they hear the word “musical”.
I saw this production alongside someone well-versed in both theatre and genre storytelling. We spoke of King adaptations, including the SF Opera’s recent Dolores Claiborne, which he found a far too low-key tory for operatic interpretation. We agreed that the sort of King stories that deserve such treatment are stories like The Shining (which we’d both love to see) and yes, Carrie. Say what you will about King’s prose, he knows that when it’s time for the scares, you go big or go home. Any production of his work that “holds back” on anything is destined to come up short.
Ray of Light’s production of Carrie: The Musical is currently running at The Victoria in San Francisco’s Mission District through the 4th of November. For further information and tickets, please visit Ray of Light Theatre