ORLANDO — Here’s a good question for all playwrights and stage directors: assuming you have a high degree of flair and creativity, how successfully can you produce a musical based on a unique source: horror movies.
If you’re inclined to point to the huge success of “Phantom of the Opera” or “The Rocky Horror Show,” it’s worth noting that the tone of “Phantom” played less like horror and more like gothic romance, while “Rocky” delivered more campy humor than scares.
Face it, it’s just downright difficult to deliver the scares when a character is belting out a tune that sounds like top 40 crooning. Would you be terrified of, say, a “Friday the 13th” musical that had Jason singing “I frown, I frown, because you all let me drown” while he’s waving a knife? I didn’t think so, either.
Orlando’s Clandestine Arts theater company has reached into the vaults, and opted to revive a production that’s had a fairly tortured history: “Carrie The Musical,” the one-time Broadway show adapted from the novel by Stephen King and, more importantly, the 1976 Brian de Palma movie.
Genuine horror in both the book and movie, it tells the story of teenager Carrie, whose first period awakens within her an untapped ability at telekinesis. She can move objects simply by concentrating on them, and when the people making her life miserable — her cruel classmates and her oppressive fanatical religious mother — go a bit too far, let’s say Carrie decides to settle some scores, big time. The body count goes through the roof.
Lawrence B. Cohen, who wrote the screenplay for the De Palma film, came up with the idea of turning Carrie’s story into a musical, with lyrics by Dean Pritchard and music by Michael Gore. It made it to Broadway in 1988 for a then-whopping cost of $8 million, but reviews were scathing, critics recorded the number of boos from the audience, and the production closed after only 16 previews and five performances — becoming legend as one of the most expensive flops in Broadway history.
For a while, the play simply faded away as little more than a bad memory, until a reading was staged in November 2009 in New York City with a revised score and book by Gore, Pitchford and Cohen. In October 2010, it was produced Off-Broadway, and the show has made it to numerous regional theaters since then, including the current production in Orlando.
Which raises the question: is “Carrie The Musical” a campy hoot that has “disaster” written all over it …. or an undiscovered gem which makes you wonder if the 1988 audience was collectively smoking something throughout the show. The answer, I felt, was neither.
First, the good news. The Clandestine Arts production is very well-mounted on the cozy stage of the ME Theatre; the directors, Derek Critzer and Sylvia Viles, do a first-rate job orchestrating the large cast, mainly of students at Carrie’s high school. The show moves at a brisk pace, and the emotional storyline is never dull.
Even more impressive are their selections for the top roles. Dorothy Christopher, as the shy, introverted Carrie, and Wendy Starkand as her domineering mother Margret, are both terrific; it’s fascinating to watch Carrie slowly break out of her shell, and Starkand brings out the humanity in a character that could have been played in a far more one-dimensional manner.
There’s also fine support from Jasmine Forsberg as Sue Snell, the student who decides to help Carrie; Natalie Doliner as Miss Gardener, the kindly gym teacher; and Josh Woodbury as Billy Nolan, the mean-spirited punk who joins in a plot to humiliate Carrie on prom night. Thanks to the actors, this show has passion to spare.
No question, the entire team put a tremendous amount of talent into this show.
But that leaves one question: the play itself. It wasn’t dull, meandering or embarrassing, as any major Broadway flop might seem likely to be; but it still has its problems.
For one thing, there’s nothing remotely suspenseful or horrific about the production. Even though Cohen had written the screenplay as well as this production, the use of songs to tell the story completely changes the tone of the piece. It feels less like Stephen King or Brian de Palma and more like a teen melodrama, a Lifetime Channel movie of the week about high school kids who feel shy and lonely, and the crass jerks who make their lives miserable. The songs, which highlight the character’s feelings and emotions, are quite melodramatic and seem to cry out Boy! It’s tough to be a teen! Boy! I wish my mom understood me better. Boy! I hate it when none of the cute guys look at me!
Carrie’s talent for telekinesis is hardly even mentioned in the first act, and it isn’t until Prom Night — which makes up most of the second act — that we get around to any scary stuff.
The score doesn’t help. Gore is a talented composer, and his work on films like “Fame” and “Terms of Endearment” were first rate. But virtually everything here seems dated and sounds like 80s power ballads (remember those?) The songs are not stirring and powerful — or cringe-inducing — but merely workmanlike, serviceable — and instantly forgettable. There isn’t a single show-stopper in the bunch.
This production of “Carrie The Musical” is worth seeing for the fine cast, the creative staging, or even if you’ve always been curious about the legend of how this show became a theatrical bomb (undeserved, kind of). It tells a story a lot of us can relate to if you ever felt like the ugly duckling geek in high school — even if it seems less like Stephen King and more like Disney Channel with foul language and crude jokes. It doesn’t deserve its awful reputation, but it’s also another reminder that horror is probably not the ideal vehicle for a creative musical adaptation.
The show runs through Aug. 30 at ME Theatre at 1300 La Quinta Drive. It plays on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and next Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20. Call 407-816-7080 for details.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..