Carrie – A Halloween Hit!

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Carrie, now playing at Church Hill theatre, is an appropriate show for the Halloween season. Based on the 1976 horror film “Carrie,” which draws its plot from a Stephen King novel of the same name, the story takes place in a high school in Maine – and ends with a thoroughly traditional horror movie amount of blood and gore.

A joint production of Chesapeake College and Church Hill Theatre, the play ran three performances at the college’s Cadby Theater, and opens at Church Hill for two more weekends beginning Friday, Nov. 3. Many of the cast members are members of the Peake Players, made up of current or recent students at the college. This works well, considering that a large number of the characters are high school seniors. And, as director Robert Thompson notes, this gives them an immediate sympathy with the feelings and problems of their characters.

King’s 1974 novel, his first to be published, was set in the near future, 1979, in a fictional small town. It used letters, fictional newspaper and magazine stories, and excerpts from Carrie’s own journal and poems to give the story an air of reality. Probably because of its use of a high school setting to generate a terrifying, blood-thirsty plot, it is one of the most frequently banned books in high schools around the country. The film, starring Cissy Spacek in the title role and Piper Laurie as her mother, appeared two years after the book.

Carrie – Queen of the Prom    Photo by Jane Jewell

Carrie happy dancing with Tommy – her first date!      Photo by Jane Jewell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The play debuted in 1984, with Lawrence D. Cohen reworking the screenplay he wrote for the film version which became a big hit.  It was more the movie than the book that made King a best-seller and jump-started his writing career.  In contrast, the first version of the musical stage play did not do so well. Michael Gore wrote the music and Dean Pitchford the lyrics – the two had made their mark with the music for “Fame.” Cohen was reportedly inspired by a performance of Alban Berg’s atonal modernist opera “Lulu.”  The original production was panned by critics, and despite sold-out houses, closed after only five official performances. It was revived in 2012 with the new script and several new songs, and while it too closed after only 48 performances, the authors said it had accomplished their goal of giving the play new life. More recent revivals, including one in Los Angeles in 2015, have received good reviews.

The plot revolves around Carrie White, a shy teenage girl who has become the target of the pranks and insults of her schoolmates. When she experiences her first period in the shower during gym class, she panics – having made it to age 17 without learning the facts of life from her mother, a religious fanatic who thinks menstruation is the result of wicked thoughts. This home life clearly gives Carrie little guidance in dealing with her life at school.

Teens prepare to torment Carrie with a bucket of fake blood.     Photo by Jane Jewell

The teachers make attempts to help Carrie, and another girl, Sue, arranges for her boyfriend Tommy, a popular athlete, to take Carrie to the prom. Carrie at first refuses, but convinced Tommy really wants her as his date, accepts the invitation. Her mother is furious – but Carrie stands up to her and goes anyway.

Carrie wreaks her revenge. Photo by Steve Atkinson

The twist in this otherwise fairly typical story of the teen misfit at the prom is that Carrie has telekinetic powers – the ability to affect and move objects by sheer mind power. When the stress reaches a peak, her psychic powers cause havoc – with the climax coming at the prom, when several of the mean students play a final trick on her.

Carrie The Musical is more than just a teen story or a horror movie transferred to the stage.  It is that.  And Halloween is exactly the right season for it. Horror movie fans will love it.  But it is also a close-up look at what can happen when idle pranks go too far and become cruel; when a lonely teen is seduced years ago and ends up a lonely single mother, embittered and hiding behind extreme religiosity.

Two of the guys dance around as the decoration committee gets the gym ready for prom.  

But don’t worry, it’s neither all horror nor all deep insight.  There are also light moments, poignant moments when a young teen watches her boyfriend ring the doorbell to pick up another girl for the prom. Even humorous moments as when the English teacher confiscates a joint from a student then takes a toke himself as soon as the student’s gone.

Shannon Whittaker, who has numerous CHT credits and who served as director of the CHT Green Room Gang this last summer, plays Carrie. With strong acting chops and a good singing voice, she makes the character both believable and sympathetic. Whittaker gives an excellent portrayal of a shy but sweet teen who finds her strength too late.  Her performance is outstanding.

Maureen Currin plays Carrie’s mother.    Photo by Steve Atkinson

Maureen Currin plays Margaret, Carrie’s mother. The character is possibly the least sympathetic character in the play, but Curris, who has appeared in a number of productions with the Tred Avon Players, gives it a strong interpretation.  Her aria, sung alone in her kitchen after Carrie defies her to go to the prom, is especially poignant, showing both insight into her own fallibility while clinging to her own religious mania.

Reilly Claxton, a first-year student at Cheaspeake, takes the role of Sue, one of three popular girls who lead the laughter at Carrie.  But as things get out of hand in the locker room, Sue begins to feel guilt and shame at her behavior. She tries to apologize to Carrie but isn’t believed, so Sue makes the ultimate teen sacrifice of getting her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom.  Claxton conveys all these emotions beautifully. While this is her first Peake Players appearance, she has many previous credits both at CHT and in TV commercials. Her experience shows – a nice job in an important part.

Sue convinces Tommy to take Carrie to the prom to make up for all the mean tricks.      Photo by Jane Jewell

Jacob Wheatley is well cast as Tommy, the boy who takes Carrie to the prom.  He is a good match for Sue. He’s one of the guys  – yet he, too, balks at the continued, excelerated bullying of Carrie.  Wheatley comes across exactly right as the all-American boy next-door, fun-loving but not really mean. Wheatley, a student at Chesapeake College, has acted in two previous productions there, including the lead in How to Succeed in business Without Really Trying.  Hope to see more of him on stage in future.

Olivia Litteral, a recent Chesapeake College graduate, takes the role of Chris, the “bad girl” who targets Carrie for her practical jokes.  Litteral shows the stubbornness and cockiness of a teen leader who won’t admit things have gone too far. A good job.

Brandon Walls, who has numerous credits both with the Peake Players and at CHT, plays Billy, Chris’s thuggish boyfriend. He does a fine job too, using his physical presence to give the character an air of menace while playing the disruptive class clown.

Among the other cast members, Samantha Smith and James Kaplanger are very good in supporting roles as teachers who try to take Carrie’s side and reign in the bullies.

The music is a challenge, which the cast mostly rises to, especially since much of the dialogue is presented in the form of songs. This requires the singers to enunciate very clearly – a challenge most but not all of them met at the performance I saw. The music as noted is more sung dialog than song, so the emphasis is on the words not pretty melodies – perhaps the influence of the Berg opera. The small band, directed by William Thomas, does a solid job, for which due credit.

Photo by Jane Jewell

The choreography, by Evelyn Paddy, is one of the show’s strong points, especially in the large ensemble scenes where several things can be going on at once. There are several particularly acrobatic performances by some of the cast members, notably James Kaplanges who executes a flawless, exuberant aerial maneuver in one of the dance scenes.

Spirits raised by Carrie’s psychic powers. Photo by Steve Atkinson

The use of masked dancers to represent the telekinetic spirits called up by Carrie lends an air of menace to every scene they appear in, lurking silently in the edges of the scene – and when they do break into action, it is especially powerful. Thoroughly spooky!

Costumes range appropriately from preppy to punk ’80s.  The prom dresses are pretty even on the the punk girls with punk purple hair.

 

“Carrie the Musical” is probably too intense – both in style, subject matter, and strong language – for very young audience members. But for anyone who isn’t put off by horror-movie material, it is worth seeing if only for the fine performances by a large cast of actors, many of them college age – a real testimony to the wealth of talent in the local community. And it’s good to see CHT willing to stretch the boundaries of “safe” community theater fare.  And if you stick around afterward, you can watch the cast and crew rise from the dead – as should happen in all good horror tales – and bring mops & buckets out and wipe up all the “blood” before the next show.

“Carrie” runs through Nov. 12, with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for students. Groups of 10 or more qualify for special prices. For reservations, call 410-556-5867 or visit the Church Hill Theatre website.

Photo gallery below by Jane Jewell

Teens torment Carrie with a bucket of fake blood.

 

Margaret, Carrie’s mother, faces her own inner demons as she becomes aware of Carrie’s very real demons. 

Carrie’s “spirits” rise as her mother warns her about boys. 

Carrie and her mother just before the prom

 

 

Carrie calls her spirits – her revenge is coming…

Carrie realizes they are mocking her. Her mother was right!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Carrie – Mopping Up Afterward for Next Show!

 

 

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