A doomed concept exerts a certain attraction. You would think that knowing something is a bad idea and is probably going to be a bad experience when put into practice would keep people away. In fact, if something sounds so impossibly flawed or unworkable that we can’t believe it could actually exist, some of us are morbidly drawn towards it.
Ignoring the warnings from our conscious intelligence, and despite the fact that we know better, we try that Twinkie or drive that AMC Gremlin ANYWAY. Just because. And if bad or weird enough, an experience can be enjoyable for its sheer freakshow qualities. We head home proudly with another “you are not going to believe this” experience in the bag. And that’s pretty satisfying.
This was the thought process behind going to see a stage musical adaptation of the film that scared kids of a certain age witless in the late 70s. I figured either way (good or bad) I was guaranteed a keeper. How could it be good? Well, with some great songs, you never know. And could it be bad? Oh yeah. A bunch of kids trying to sing their way toward a group extermination at the high school prom? That just didn’t sound very doable, i.e., there was a moderate chance of scoring a “worst theatre experience ever” plaque for the trophy cabinet.
In fact, it came out somewhere in between. Was it good? No. But it disappointed in that, while moderately bad, it did not descend to the truly intergalactic awful. Mind you, it tried. But there was only so much material to work with. All in all, it was pretty enjoyable to see – just to say you were there to bear witness to the campy attempt. But this is not, by traditional standards, what you would label a “good” show. And it’s definitely not scary.
The central problem with CARRIE: THE MUSICAL is that it is pulled in between two totally irreconcilable directions simultaneously every minute of the show. On the one hand it wants to be an upbeat, peppy story about high school kids having fun and falling in love. On the other, it actually IS a tale about how everyone is going to fry at the end – mainly for something they didn’t have anything to do with.
It almost felt like the producer, who wanted a bloodbath faithful to the original story, kept herding the writers, who wanted to write about happy high school adventures, back on message. Ok, we’ve got five minutes fellas, what can you do? Do you mind if we do another high school party song, boss! Alright guys, but make it fast. And remember, everyone is going to die in the end. So give us more on that as soon as you’re done with the upbeat number, k?
The artistic pull between these two strands, which alternate awkwardly, is never ironed out. One minute you’re living in a RENT like number where plucky young people are vibrant and happy and on the upswing. The next minute you’re reminded that actually, no, there is no upswing here. Everyone is going to die. But why? For such a dark and scary tale, there are way too many major key numbers with people swanning around stage smiling. The ending is essentially a non sequitor.
The best way to understand the musical rendering of the 1976 film is as an addendum. It’s like a piece of CARRIE merchandise. It assumes everyone has already seen the film many times. And if you have not seen the film, you will have no idea what is going on or why from the musical. On stage, things are going along more or less ok. Yes, there are some speed bumps, such as Carrie’s mom, played by the forceful Alice Ripley. Mom tends to wander around home with either a crucifix or kitchen knife clasped behind her back. But, hey, it’s the 70s. Shit happened. Otherwise, life in wherever we are in rural Maine (Stephen King’s Maine is NOT the tourist board-approved “The Way Life Should Be” Maine) trundles onwards.
A lot of the story is kids at school being arch and mean – but not in an “everyone is going to die” way. We’ve since had zillions of films where the kids at school are every bit as mean as those in CARRIE, but no one gets gassed at the prom. Still, the high school schtick is great. Bad girl Chris is brought wonderfully to life by Tessa Archer, and her hunky boyfriend Billy (Andrew Brewer) stomps around shirtless flexing his pecs half the time, menacing geeks in thick-rimmed glasses. Other little dramas come and go.
And then suddenly everyone dies. Boom. But what Carrie’s supernatural powers are and how she wields them is not very clear. They come out of left field, she suddenly snaps her fingers, and kids start to drop like flies.
The show is on at Seattle’s Moore Theatre, a decrepit venue from another century with horrible sound (despite a recent renovation). But it’s the perfect time warp setting for this nostalgia piece. As you enter the Moore, which may have already looked retro back in 1976, the interior lobby is done up like the ill-fated prom at Chamberlain High, complete with signs everywhere reminding us this is A NIGHT WE’LL NEVER FORGET. The overpowering smell of industrial junk food is choking, and based on the enthusiastic response at the concessions counter to GMO popcorn covered with yellowy, artery-blocking fake butter, more than a few of the audience members, who appear to be eating as if it’s still 1976, may die FOR REAL tonight.
Unfortunately, despite some prime archival material to work with, this turns out to be a night we’ll forget all too soon.