Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review: Third Time's a Charm for CARRIE THE MUSICAL

Emily Lopez as Carrie.
All photos (c) 2015 Jason Niedle

Twice before, producers have attempted to bring Stephen King’s horror novel, Carrie, to the stage but were met with less than positive results. The musical’s first U.S. production played an embarrassing16 previews and 5 performances on Broadway before it was shuttered and a 2012 revival Off-Broadway closed early after only a month of performances and disappointing sales.

But, as they say, third time’s a charm, and director Brady Schwind’s immersive vision of Lawrence D. Cohen (book), Dean Pitchford (lyrics), and Michael Gore’s (music) musical has resurrected this phoenix from the dead in a way that will thrill audiences and finally give it the life the creators always hoped it would have. Yes, in La Mirada Theatre’s production, blood drops, Jesus flies, and an electric cast brings the fires of hell to life in an unforgettable intimately experiential setting.You’ll be sorry if you miss it so get your tickets now.

That setting (creatively envisioned by Stephen Gifford) is one in which the audience is placed on stage right up against the action. There are stationary bleacher units as well as movable pods that continually revolve to create a changeable playing area. We were seated in one of the four moving sections that put us very close to the actors and I highly suggest choosing those if you can. (They are the red A Level sections when you go to buy tickets). They give you a unique perspective on the story, especially when the space closes in around the students in an almost stifling way.

You’re there in the shower with Carrie huddled naked on the floor, and you’re there in the gym when Chris refuses to apologize for her actions. You can feel the slap before Margaret throws her daughter in the closet, and when Carrie begins to experiment with her telekinetic abilities, you can feel the power surge in the shadowy room. Gifford’s a problem-solver from the word go and this show certainly presented logistical challenges. His big reveal at the prom is so effective the audience around me gasped.

Emily Lopez and Misty Cotton

It’s also a brave production, thanks to the glorious debut performance of Emily Lopez as Carrie and that of music theatre veteran Misty Cotton as her mother, Margaret. Neither one shies away from the vulnerability required of them, nor do they tiptoe around their dysfunctional relationship. Lopez has a lovely lyrical singing voice and a naïve subtlety that works beautifully for her socially disadvantaged character while Cotton poignantly reveals the obsessions of a bible-thumping mother deathly afraid of being alone. Few can do a song like “When There’s No One” true justice and Cotton’s tour de force performance turns it into a visceral showstopper.

Kayla Parker, excellent as good girl Sue Snell, narrates the events leading up to the fatal prom and realizes too late that “Once You See” you can never un-see what your actions have done. A brash Valerie Rose Curiel leads the charge for revenge as the vicious Chris whose taunts show how damaging bullying can be (and how damaged many teens really are). Her motto is to strike first before you’re struck and with her jerk of a boyfriend Billy in tow (played by a physically intimidating Garrett Marshall) she plots her payback. Jenelle Lynn Randall nails the humor and attitude of PE teacher Miss Gardner.

Vibrant choreography by Lee Martino captures the angst of youth with its percussive moves and sharp energy. Musically the production has real impact due to the way music director Brian P. Kennedy matches the specificity of a character’s personality to his or her musical style. Miniature speakers mounted in front of the movable audience pods are a great solution to making the sound work and designer Cricket Myers also pulls a few surprises out of her bag of tricks to accompany the special effects designed by illusionist Jim Steinmeyer and Paul Rubin (responsible for the flying sequences).

From the cast to the creative team to the cult status previously established, this is a show with so much going for it yet its success really begins and ends with the director. Were it not for Brady Schwind and his vision, this wouldn’t be nearly the exciting event that it is and colleagues from around the country wouldn’t be calling and emailing me to see what it was like. I kid you not – this IS an event…and the rest of the country wants it. If you’re in LA, get in on it now.

Valerie Rose Curiel (center) with the cast of Carrie

The cast of Carrie the Musical surrounded by the audience

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