Blood Bath

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bailiwick carrie the musicalEvery musical theater queen worth his or her salt talk about the dubiously legendary Carrie: The Musical in reverentially snarky tones usually reserved for mausoleums of dictators’ wives.  It is of course notable for being the centerpiece case study of Ken Mandelbaum’s 1992 best-seller about Broadway musical flops  entitled well Not Since Carrie:  40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, and because of this has acquired the reputation of being the worst Broadway musical of all time.  The 1988 Broadway production ran only for five regular performances, lost millions of dollars, and received some of the cruelest, bitchiest reviews ever written (New York Times theater critic Frank Rich said by its last scene, “Carrie expires with fireworks like the Hindenburg.” Ouch!).  It seemed like creators Michael Gore (music), Dean Pitchford (lyrics), and Lawrence D. Cohen (book) were so traumatized by the experience that they didn’t approve the licensing of any Carrie: The Musical production for almost 25 years. In 2012, they came up with a re-written and re-arranged version which received, from all accounts, a pretty earnest off-Broadway staging. It is this version of Carrie: The Musical that Bailiwick Chicago is presenting in an enjoyable, audience-friendly production which still doesn’t  mask the superficiality of the playwriting and the tedious, pedestrian quality of the music-writing.  Kudos to Bailiwick Chicago, though, because given this play’s reputation it takes some king-sized balls to stage Carrie: The Musical and not be laughed out of town.

I never read Stephen King’s book, but I did see Brian dePalma’s camp scare classic starring Sissy Spacek as shy, bullied Carrie and Piper Laurie as her crazy mom Margaret (who not only chewed the scenery, but spit it out, recycled it and chewed it up some more, delightfully).  It’s a pretty odd choice for a musical, given the fact that its showcase scene is Carrie getting a bucketful of pig’s blood dumped on her head while wearing her Prom Queen crown and sash which triggers telekinesis, a fire and the butching up of John Travolta (playing the high school goon Billy). It’s a scene that of course figures prominently in Carrie: The Musical but I’m not sure how you can write this scene with the actors singing and dancing without guffawing  your head off?  Cohen doesn’t succeed (even with director Michael Driscoll’s muted staging, the scene is still pretty funny).  Cohen also doesn’t succeed in several other areas: the dysfunctional, symbiotic relationship between Margaret and Carrie needs to come across as believable yet terrifying  but  it doesn’t;  the turnaround of Sue from Carrie nemesis to Carrie friend and advocate (so much so that she begs her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom instead of her) is abruptly written; the re-focusing on Carrie as a bullying victim instead of a girl traumatized by the religious zealotry of her mother (the angle in the movie) is admirable but feels shallow and underdeveloped.  You could overlook the weaknesses of the script if Gore’s and Pitchford’s (both Oscar-winning songwriters) songs were, pardon the pun, pitch-perfect. But the score is monotonous, vanilla, 80s lite-pop, sort of like Michael Bolton without the great hair. Some of the songs are unfortunately truly groan-inducing (the group song “Do Me A Favor” sounds like it was written in the SNL writers’ room as a parody of Glee).  The score does contain some interesting songs such as “Unsuspecting Hearts” the hummable first act duet between Carrie and the gym teacher Miss Gardner, and “When There’s No One”, Margaret’s anguished second-act number.

Despite how weak the material is, I still enjoyed the show and that’s thanks to director Driscoll and his game cast.  Driscoll paces the show briskly, and despite the inherent wackiness of “The Prom” number, succeeds in making the musical numbers engaging by staging them in the Glee style with lots of energy and movement (Brigitte Ditmars choreography is serviceable, and definitely not the combo aerobicize-meets-Olympics-gymnastics-routine that Debbie Allen devised for the Broadway production, one of the elements that critics lashed out at and which unfortunately is memorialized for eternity in grainy YouTube clips). It would have been probably been more enjoyable if he embraced the camp qualities of the piece instead of treating it somewhat earnestly, but the show still works. The cast is lively and attractive, although there are some pretty thin singing moments .  Katherine L. Condit’s Margaret, a refreshingly subdued take quite different from Laurie’s monstrous film turn, is the standout. She also sings the songs beautifully and hauntingly, much more  so than they deserve.  I loved Callie Johnson in her Jeff-award winning performance in Pal Joey last year, and she turns in a pretty solid performance with what she has to work with.  She finds the nuance in Carrie (her joy at being at the prom with Tommy is heartwarming to watch) despite the fact that Cohen doesn’t really write a compellingly layered character (it’s shy, dominated ugly duckling to murderous wacko job in an abbreviated arc).  “Unsuspecting Hearts” sang with a warm and radiant Kate Garassino as Miss Gardner is a highlight of the production.  I’d love to see her take on greater musical theater characters which will stretch her talent (Carrie Pipperidge anyone?)  Although even without the outrageous histrionics of the original Broadway production, this more intimate take on Carrie: The Musical  still deserves some of its reputation as one of American musical theater’s most ill-conceived notions. Bailiwick’s watchable production though proves that expert, focused theatermakers  can make lemons out of lemonade.

Carrie: The Musical is at the Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., until July 12.

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