By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
The leaves are turning toward autumn. Hybrid pumpkins fill our porches, and Portland’s moving toward its inevitable bunkering-down for winter. The usual ghost stories are popping up to haunt us as Halloween approaches, and right on cue, Stumptown Stages has put on Carrie: The Musical for us.
Does anything scare us today that deals with death?
Not all theater has a message, but the advice underlying Carrie: the Musical is clear: never let your high school gym teacher try to save your miserable existence. It’ll begin with fake bloodshed, move on to misguided telekinesis, and end in double murder.
Soon after Stephen King’s breakthrough novel became a bestseller in 1974, the first version of the musical was workshopped by Lawrence D. Cohen (who wrote the screenplay for the hit 1976 movie), Michael Gore (no puns here) and Dean Pitchford. Cohen, interviewed by the New York Times, said that if Alban Berg, the avant-garde composer of the opera Lulu, were composing at the time of this material, Carrie would be the plot he’d mine for inspiration. This trivia provides the platform for Carrie: The Musical. A playwright, librettist, and composer tried to take the old-fashioned fairytale of Cinderella and push it to a supernatural and psychotronic end. As the saying goes: “It’s all fun and games, until someone gets an eye poked out.” One wonders, why didn’t Cohen, following a dubious line of creative choices, take his inclination to the next level and make a musical of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs!, or dig from Hammer Films? At the end of the day, though, Cohen, Gore and Pitchford were correct: the idea of Carrie was worth the effort.
Carrie: The Musical sings out with reminders of the stage musical Flashdance, for which Pitchford wrote the lyrics. In a similar context, Carrie’s gym teacher is the first person to be sympathetic to her, to show her a door to the outside world. The next decades of Disney films would take their cue from his popular score, and the public would give in to the familiar sound: less like a traditional musical, more like an pop-operetta. The orchestration of the choruses doesn’t follow the typical musical line. There’s a little Mozart in here: antagonist in minor, protagonist in major, and it makes a sonic harmony between an odd libretto: “Men are demons of romance,” or, “Cheesy, but nice.” There’s choreography to Carrie: The Musical, but it’s not ballet or dancing in the classic musical-theater structure. Which brings us back to the point: Carrie is meant to be a serious production. We’re all in a postmodern candy shoppe, where metaphor is how we connect.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that coming-of-age stories are the bottom of the barrel in storytelling. You could argue, on the contrary, that all of these narratives consume our imagination for good reasons: one, because they are often written as metamorphic rescue fantasies from an adult vantage point; two, because it’s just plain fun to see if the protagonist will make it out alive. We all know how Carrie ends, and for most of us, the image of Sissy Spacek as a pink bride covered in ketchup blood is burned into our psyches. We go along for the ride, and laugh in spite of it all.
When King’s first published novel, on which the musical is based, was released, this deadly culmination to a senior prom seemed so outrageous that it had to be funny. And watching the musical version, I had to poker-face it a number of times to hide my laughing, because this wasn’t meant to be a funny performance. Then again, it wasn’t the production that amused me, it was the whole Carrie phenomenon. As I looked around to the audience, I saw that most of the crowd felt an emotional connection and accord with Stumptown’s production. There was even a groupie, who had recently returned from the New York production of Carrie: The Musical and was donning a T-shirt telling us so. He was far from alone in his enthusiasm, and for some good reasons.
Malia Davis, who played Carrie, had her hair tied back in an elaborate French braid and wore no makeup. She played up the image of a repressed daughter, haunted by her religious mother, played by Susan Jonsson. They and Stumptown put on a good exposition of opposites, maybe pulling from Grease: good girl and good boy vs. bad girl and bad boy. But while in Grease, the crux is sex and feminist liberation from monogamous relationships, something more is at stake in Carrie. The kids in this play drink, take drugs, and make sex easy. That’s where the differences start to show up. Carrie is Almost Famous, and that’s the age when these high school seniors take their own permission: the gym teacher and English prof are trying to tell them they have choices, but social choices have more appeal; and personal choices seem to have little consequence for the kids.
Davis, as Carrie, and Amber Mitchell, as Sue, have great voices and training. Both pull off their long, virtuosic solos empathetically, conveying their social roles inside and outside the real play. By the second act, we’ve bought into Carrie’s theatrical reality, and break into little corner-smiles at how beautiful and ready she is for independence and real life. We want her to be happy; we know she has a power to be that. But, we also know she won’t. So we take what we can buy. We celebrate her little hours of happiness. It was the second act that made me doff my ingoing perception that this was a fright for all irony in the spooky season: I felt a genuine happiness for Carrie’s little moment of redemption.
Jake Daley, who plays Sue’s steady who repents for Sue’s bad treatment of Carrie and takes her in Sue’s place to the senior prom, makes an amazing first impression on Portland stages. He captures the charming innocence of a young man who’s out to fall in love head over-heels, but doesn’t know which way to turn or which girl to give his heart to.
Some smoke and mirrors peek out here and there for scary effect. While the stage setting doesn’t change, Stumptown Stages makes the most of its props and direction. We move seamlessly between gym, classroom, prom, and home. The strong cast shifts effectively between the violence of schoolyard bullying, domestic violence, sex, drugs, and rock and roll as the kids enter their adult years.
What caught me at the end of this performance was the realization that today, a high school or college theater probably couldn’t put on Carrie: The Musical. It’s about an alienated, hurt girl who ends up killing her entire class and being murdered by her zealot mother. That’s why King’s book isn’t ironic, commercial, or over-th- top. Maybe he’s not the best writing stylist, but he makes a point. That’s why Carrie, which was once claimed to be the worst musical ever written, has a phoenix-like quality: despite its critical receptions, it remains loved and celebrated. We wish a better life for Carrie, but that’s not the way it works. Carrie celebrates the worst of us. At the end of the day, if we edit out the impossible, this is now a reality.
Stumptown Stages’ Carrie: The Musical continues through November 8 in the Brunish Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket and schedule information here.