When your prom goes wrong
The Selma Arts Center production of “Carrie: The Musical” can feel volatile and unsettled, like the charged air in an electrical storm. In many ways that’s a good thing. When your narrative is dominated by a mercilessly teased girl whose nascent telekinetic powers are sparked by rage, the last thing you want is a production that comes across as tidy and restrained.
A big part of this dynamic is Abigail Halpern, the 16-year-old Buchanan High School student who plays Carrie White. Her voice is wonderfully strong and rattling in its intensity, but it can also be less than fully controlled. From the moment Halpern belts out her first long, sustained solo note, I felt I was in the presence of someone who doesn’t realize her own power, which seems perfect for the role.
The show’s direction and creative design also demonstrate many of the same unsettled tendencies. Unfortunately, this isn’t as positive a quality. At the opening night performance I attended, some of the basics were fumbled: sloppy and far too lengthy transitions between scenes; inopportune choices in lighting design; a few awkwardly blocked scenes; some clunky moments in which characters seem directionless.
And, like it or not, “Carrie” needs to live up to its much-anticipated ending — which, after all, is known as an iconic pop-culture moment. (Ask any American to name the three branches of government and you could very well draw blank stares; ask what happens to Carrie at her high-school prom and you’ll probably get a detailed explanation of where the pig’s blood came from.) This production is disappointing in that regard.
Still, I applaud director Claudio Laso and his Selma ensemble for their emphatic dedication to the material, which is a central San Joaquin Valley premiere. The musical version of “Carrie” — known for decades as one of Broadway’s biggest failures — has been radically reworked throughout the years, emerging as a somber and cautionary tale. The music (score by Michael Gore and lyrics by Dean Pritchford) is dominated by weighty ballads that come across with a hint of evangelical menace. And the book (by Lawrence D. Cohen) steers away from the campy nature that you might expect given the source material, striving instead for a solid emotional connection with the title character.
Carrie, captured with a solemn and pugnacious intensity by Halpern, is at war on two fronts. The kids at school bully her because of her awkwardness and strict religious upbringing. (A key moment early on is when she gets her first period and is frightened because she is totally unprepared; the girls in the locker room are relentless in their mockery.) At home, too, Carrie is in conflict, lined up against her exceedingly screwed-up mother, Margaret (a resolute and memorable Carly Oliver). Carrie’s mom has all sorts of hang-ups in terms of sexuality and has intertwined them with her fundamentalist religious beliefs. The result comes disturbingly close to outright misogyny, with Stephen King’s focus on menstruation and Eve’s original sin, but the storyline is just creepy (and, in a way, empowering) enough to resonate with modern audiences.
Powerful duets between mother and daughter (“Open Your Heart,” “And Eve Was Weak”) are among the production’s best. I love the vocal blend between Halpern and Oliver (a nod to vocal coach Tim Fletcher, who all around coaxes a very strong sound from both principals and the ensemble) and their fraught chemistry. With more training, Halpern’s voice can mature into a powerhouse belt. Oliver brings a husky, pungent quality to her performance — a cross between prim and desperate — that really heightens the tension.
Imani Branch is a standout as Chris Hargensen, the school’s “bad girl” and ringleader in the prom plot against Carrie, giving us some nice nuance in a particularly villainous role. (She’s also just the type who shines on stage.) Also strong is Caitlyn Lopez as Sue Snell, who taunts Carrie at first but then has a change of heart. Chris Ortiz-Belcher gives a sweet but underwhelming performance as Tommy Ross, the jock with a conscience (and Sue’s boyfriend), who reluctantly agrees to ask Carrie to the prom to atone for Sue’s guilt. Lopez’s vocals in “You Shine,” her duet with Ortiz-Belcher, are a highlight.
Other performances are less polished. Brittney Burris struggles vocally as Miss Gardner, the kindly P.E. teacher, and Vincent Paz Macareno finds it hard to connect as bad-boy Billy Nolan. The ensemble includes some very talented performers who seem at ease on stage (one that stands out is Michael Mendez as George, who keeps tossing out gay-friendly lines), while a handful of others need more confidence.
The creative team racks up a number of weaknesses, from Lexis Hamilton’s choreography (which at times seems more appropriate for music videos than musical theater) to Madisen Padilla’s disappointing projections/graphics (more on that in a moment). Madison Kelley’s lighting design is too fussy and abrupt, eschewing emotional transitions for light-switch moments. Abigail Cruce’s costume design for the most part works well, though Miss Gardner’s prom outfit, which is specifically remarked upon in the script as particularly “incredible,” does not come across that way.
The direction also falters at times. In a key moment at the end of the first act, when Carrie first unveils her telekinetic powers on her mother, I as an audience member completely lost the motivational arc of the scene: Is the look that Carrie flashes one of helplessness, peevishness, rebellion or iron-clad determination? Later, just what is the relationship between Tommy and Carrie? Does he have feelings for her? And small but perplexing incidents popped up on opening night: Couldn’t someone have found chairs that don’t look like they came straight from the audience to use in the prom scene? And why, on opening night, did a stagehand run out to remove a weapon once it was used?
Some of these issues are due to the show’s sometimes clunky writing. But stronger direction could have shaped things in a more emphatic way.
I also need to weigh in on the climax. Theater doesn’t have to be realistic, of course. But there are so many more effective and creative ways that Laso and his production team could have handled the moment everyone is waiting for, aka the prom scene, in which the cruel joke on Carrie is realized. My disappointment isn’t just in the efficacy of the special effects (the projections are far too subtle, and the obtrusive metal handles mounted on the back of the set, which are present throughout the show, don’t offer much of a payoff), but that disappointment is more in the perfunctory way in which the big moment is unveiled. When I saw “Carrie” on stage in a previous production I was absolutely roiled, both visually and emotionally. (And, for the record, that was an effect that was accomplished completely by the lighting design and terror radiated by the cast.)
Still, my mixed feelings about the show don’t negate the intensity of the experience. Yes, the production is uneven. But I applaud the daring of the material and the hard work that went into this local premiere. I walked away impressed with the vocals, the performances of Sue and Chris, and especially the fraught connection between Carrie and her fiendish mother. There’s danger in the air, and this show crackles with it.
There will be blood: In the Selma Arts Center local premiere of “Carrie,” a 1970s horror tale tackles contemporary themes of fitting in and bullying
“Carrie” plays for five more performances: 7 p.m. Thursday (student night discount and talkback following the show), 7 p.m. Friday (cabaret performance following the show), 2 p.m. Saturday (buy one ticket, get one free), 7 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St., Selma.
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