Through its various incarnations, the story of Carrie has frequently incurred one form of indelible experience or another. The opening scene of horror author Stephen King's first novel, during which a menstruating girl is pelted with tampons by her jeering classmates in the shower of a high school gym, was an iconic portrayal of the cruelty of teenagers. Director Brian De Palma's 1976 film and its accompanying advertising campaign insured that all viewers would associate Carrie with the image of a prom queen drenched from head to toe in blood. In 1988, Carrie: The Musical made history as probably the bloodiest and one of the biggest fiascos in Broadway history — inspiring the title for Ken Mandelbaum's book Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops. In 2006, a non-musical adaptation debuted Off-Broadway; this version featured a female impersonator as the titular character.
In 2012, the writers of the musical took another stab at their material and revised the score for a scaled down, Off-Broadway revival. Earlier this year, the 2012 version received a cosmetic makeover of sorts, which has adorned the show with enough whistles and bells to make most people forgive the musical's tarnished history. As it stands, Brady Schwind's fantastical direction and a terrific cast make Carrie: The Killer Musical Experience an entertaining and fascinating spectacle.
Schwind's version, which recently had its debut at the La Mirada Theatre, is currently playing at the historic Los Angeles Theatre. As soon as guests step into the luxurious building, the immersion begins. The theatre's lobby is decorated as though it were the location for an actual high school prom. Posters display messages of welcome to the Ewen High Senior Prom. Only upon closer inspection do seemingly innocuous bits of prom decor reveal traces of horror-infused imagery and the title of the production. Various props, such as vandalized school lockers, prom balloons, and school desks are strategically placed throughout the lower levels of the building to enhance the motif. Additionally, there are two separate rooms which serve as gruesome locations for photo ops: one is decorated as a farm, with a giant, prostrate, bloody pig as its centerpiece; the other is a gym locker room with giant, beautifully lit, bloody letters spelling out: Carrie White Eats Shit.
The actual performance area is fairly intimate. The floor resembles that of a gymnasium and the seats resemble bleachers. This facilitates a well-executed environmental theater approach, wherein the cast members occasionally stand or sit amongst the audience members — sometimes exchanging cursory sentiments with them. Furthermore, four of the bleacher sections are positioned at ground level and are mobile; this facet is used to great effect throughout the show. For example, during the "tampon scene" the seating sections are moved inwards (by actors and / or stage hands) to simulate the confined space of the gym shower, resulting in a much closer proximity for the audience to witness the character's vulnerable moment (during which Carrie [Emily Lopez] is nude); in another instance, the bleacher sections are moved in response to Carrie's telekinetic powers.[
In addition to the impressive set design (props to Stephen Gifford), various illusions are used to forge a wonderful environmental atmosphere. Jim Steinmeyer did an outstanding job creating the various tricks which demonstrate Carrie's powers of telekinesis. Altogether, the various effects and ambiance were the co-stars of the production. As for the performers, all of the principals performed admirably. Misty Cotton as Carrie's fanatical Christian mother was so powerful that it was easy to forget that the character is off her rocker — though the fact that Lawrence D. Cohen's book has her drawn sympathetically certainly doesn't prevent the audience from caring about her. Lopez nails all the emotional beats of Carrie — from her imbecilic naiveté (during the shower scene), to her Disney-like song of self-empowerment, to her transformation into a classy young lady, to her destructive reign of revenge. Adriana Lambarri's costuming provides a terrific complement for the transformation that Carrie goes through — from her sort of granola hippie rags to her beautiful and risque prom dress. The costuming for the other characters appropriately pegs them into their respective two-dimensional types, and that brings us to the weaker links of the show.
Some of the songs are admittedly catchy, but the overarching feel of Michael Gore's music and Dean Pitchford's lyrics is not particularly remarkable. To be fair, there are some impressive aspects of the musical arrangement (which jibe nicely with the sound design of Cricket S. Myers), and the songs lend themselves to showcasing the excellent talent of their performers, but the music and the script come across like contrivances meant to provide a connection between two disparate genres. This is not to say that musicals and horror stories are inherently disparate [e.g. Bousman and Zdunich's recent Devil's Carnival], and while a musical about teenagers finding themselves may seem like a nice complement to King's supernatural horror story about the trials of adolescence, the various elements do not fit together all that neatly.
As the Director's Notes in the playbill reveal, Schwind's principal goal is entertainment. Given the dismissal of loftier — and much less accessible — goals such as transcendence and enlightenment (which can and have been achieved through genre material), Carrie: The Killer Musical Experience achieves the director's goal. It is eye-catching; it showcases the talents of the cast and crew; it is a fascinating experiment in immersive theater; and it has major cult appeal. The fact that it is the latest in a tradition of colorful iterations of King's novel makes it part of genre heritage, and despite the fact that it is not an all out theatrical triumph, it demonstrates that passion can restore a sense of dignity to a work of art that had previously been a pariah of musical theater.