Revew – Carrie the Musical – Southwark Playhouse

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I know it was just last week that I was giving you a lecture about how I do make some assumptions about basic cultural literacy (regarding Death of a Salesman), and yet, here I am, less than a week later, having to admit I’ve never seen Carrie – the movie, the book, OR the musical. In fact, my closest acquaintance with it is via the book Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops. It’s this book that drove me to see the show, currently revived at the Southwark Playhouse, wondering what it was that made the original fail so badly; but then, there’s just the excitement and novelty of seeing a horror film/novel on stage – not some high-falutin’ literary stuff like Frankenstein or Phantom of the Opera, but an actually blood-and-teenagers quasi-morality rollercoaster ride.

Or, you know, just a really bad musical. I was in.

I got a big kick out of seeing, after many years away, a reproduction of the high school dynamics of my youth on the stage. The mean and popular girls, the stupid and popular boys, the constantly changing friendships … and, of course, the rejected geek. Oddly there was only one in this school – there should have been a boy or two as well (later to rise, Bill Gates like, from the ashes of nerd-dom) – but in the case of Carrie White (Evelyn Hoskins), we had a girl with the double burden of being socially awkward and also the daughter of a freaky hellfire and damnation mom (Kim Criswell). In terms of setting up the story, all of Mom’s blithering about how the day of judgment was going to come helped nicely to build a case for Carrie losing her self-control as the bullying at school hit a peak – although that’s getting ahead of the story – but Carrie’s mom also creates a sort of logic to Carrie “coming into her powers” as she hits menarche – it’s not an uncommon idea, after all, that being able to bear children is a sign of being strong. However, Margaret takes it straight to wacky town with her crazy talk about “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” nonsense which seems really unfortunate if you have a teenaged daughter with red hair that you perhaps resent for causing you to spend your own adulthood as a single mother. It’s definitely a bad situation for Carrie, who’s only real support comes from a well-intentioned gym teacher.

The gym teacher, however, in trying to manage the behavior of the girl bullies winds up utterly aggravating the more aggressive of the two – Chris (Gabriella Williams), a perfectly toned, tanned, and heartless blond that you know from the first scene is going to not make it to the end of the play. Her friendship with the one nice girl, Sue (Sarah McNicholas) seemed at the beginning like it was going to form more of a counterbalance to Carrie’s own unfortunate life – but instead, Chris becomes simply single mindedly mean, and the focus moves off to the romance between Sue and Tommy (Greg Miller-Burns, simply charming). Unfortunately, all of the high school kids wind up just becoming a big blur – and the feeling of hate and abuse I think that needed to be built in order for us to fully revel in Carrie’s explosion just doesn’t happen. I blame part of this on the fact the lyrics were so damned difficult to hear most of the time – and you can’t blame it on the accents because I should have been able to understand it all. And then the special effects bits that were supposed to help us “get” Carrie’s building telekinetic abilities nearly disappeared, especially from my seat in the corner. I knew something bad was going to happen, but it wasn’t built up to very well by the show, and the final disaster scene was neither scary nor moving – a bit of a damp squib in the end, possibly just utterly unsuited to the musical format.

However, what did work well was the fantastic acting of Evelyn Hoskins and the gorgeous voices she and Kim Criswell treated us to. Hoskins had be really believing in her as the lead character – she continued sympathetic throughout and just looked so fragile – and listening to her and Criswell belt it out had ten times the power of the levitation moments or the collapse of the gym ceiling. I think, maybe, we’ve got a case of a subject just being horribly mismatched to format. If it’s the duets that touch us, then let’s have more of them: but if they want to do an ass-kicking Grand Guignol performance, let’s have eyeballs being gouged out with corsages and people being run through with I-beam. Or something. The show is a bit of a mixed bag, but I can’t help but feel there’s something in it worth saving, maybe with an utterly reworked ending. Ah well, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it at last and I’m looking forward to seeing Hoskins on stage again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, May 19th, 2015. It continues through May 30th.)

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