If recreating the classic Stephen King horror novel as a Broadway musical sounds like a bad idea to you, you’re not alone. Carrie, with music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and book by Lawrence D Cohen, was one of the biggest flops in Broadway history. Closing after 16 previews and 5 performances, it’s a show nobody wanted to touch for nearly 25 years. This version of events focuses a lot less on the supernatural and gruesome elements and instead turns the story into a high school drama about the consequences of bullying. With the prominence of school shootings and religious extremism still in our news cycles, this production seems timely with a touch of something darker.
The opening number sets the tone for the production as the chorus laments their fraught attempts to fit into high school when every detail is examined and evaluated by your peers. Even with the inclusion of Carrie’s fanatical religious mother Margaret (Michele Lansdown), this production is clearly far more interested in that liminal period between childhood and adulthood when everyone has to learn about consequences. It just so happens these particular consequences were extreme, to say the least.
Carrie is familiar story about a girl being bullied by her peers for being different, but with the added twist of her late-puberty bringing on telekinetic powers that she uses to seek revenge on her oppressors both at home and at school. It’s told retrospectively through the perspective of Sue Snell (Lauren Anne Paul) who paints herself a by-stander who was only trying to do the right thing. In a simple story that lacks much nuance in either character or plot development, Sue is perhaps the most complicated character as she attempts to navigate the reckoning of not being as nice of a person as you always thought you were. But even then, the majority of the production comes across as a mix of Matilda the Musical and 13 Reasons Why in the simplification of motivation and complication and the micro-lense through which it examines conflict. It’s surprising to consider this production was adapted for an adult audience when so much of it seems more appropriate for a young adult or teenaged audience.
In addition to being set in a high school, this production is sickly sweet and sentimental in its representation of the senior (Year 12) experience. It culminates in a cringe-inducing duet between Sue and boyfriend Tommy Ross (Matt Laird) where they convince each other of their secret wonderfulness before committing to a summer in Europe. It’s laughably cliche and bordering on unwatchable in the hyper-romantisation and unnecessary earnestness. It’s unearned and silly.
In terms of the music, Carrie is very much an adapted novel rather than a musical in its own right. The lyrics are often awkward and vague with an over-emphasis on the romanticisation of high school and the score is pretty generic except for the touches of jazz-esque tones in some songs. If you were somehow unfamiliar with the source material or wanted a night of musical spectacular, you’ll be disappointed.
All of that being said, Tonazzi and his production team have gathered a cast of strong musical talent that are a joy to watch. Leads Sue and Chris (Rachel Tunaley) play opposite sides of the girl gang very well and are interesting in their competition. Boyfriend of Chris, Billy Nolan (Zach Selmes) is a sleaze who can really sing and the chorus does an excellent job of supporting the flow and forming the cliques of this story.
What was a surprise was the way this production handled the both tender and taut relationships between Carrie (Kirralee Elliott) and her female role models: her mother and Miss Gardner (Heather Campbell). When she’s abandoned by her peers, Carrie finds solace in the women around her but she is also able to grow in these relationships and come into her own as half of a pair. In particular, Campbell and Elliott’s duets are beautifully charming and kind.
Elliott is powerful and engaging in every scene she enters. From her first song, this Carrie isn’t doing anything to hide the force of her conviction, even as she doubts herself. In slower, more reflective moments, Elliott maintains strength and is difficult to look away from. If the character is unrealistic and overly victimised, Elliott makes her worth watching.
Carrie was a bold choice for Louis Ellis Productions to debut with, but it has certainly paid off in a (nearly) sold-out run. This musical will never be a classic but this direction and cast make it an enjoyable watch on the independent musical scene.
Carrie: the Musical is running at the Depot Theatre from July 27th – August 4th.