Taking a seat for Bailiwick Chicago’s “Carrie: The Musical,” can evoke the same giddy sense of anticipation as buckling up for an amusement park thrill ride.
As anyone even vaguely involved in the pop culture loop can tell you, Stephen King’s 1974 novel, an American gothic high school horror story (and one of the most frequently banned books in U.S. schools), is hugely popular. And Brian De Palma’s 1976 film version, starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, has its own fervent following. But for some reason both the 1988 Broadway musical version of the story, and its revised 2012 Off Broadway edition, fared badly.
So the train-wreck predictions for the Chicago debut of the 2012 version loomed large. But as it turns out, the show is far from a carbon copy of the film, yet is immensely affecting. In many ways it is a kinder, gentler “Carrie,” ideally suited to a society now obsessed with bullying, and to an era in which the pernicious forces of social media seem far more terrifying than one girl’s retributive telekinetic powers. The truth is, with its toned-down, far more realistic book (by screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen), and its carefully modulated direction (by Michael Driscoll), this “Carrie” should be mandatory viewing for junior and senior high school kids, even if it doesn’t take a genius to know that some poor outcast or another will subsequently be branded “Scary Carrie.” Teenagers can be terrible fascists.
The show’s score, by Michael Gore (music) and Dean Pitchford (lyrics), contains some beautiful songs, from the anguished mother-daughter anthem, “And Eve Was Weak,” to the sensitive boy’s self-revelation, “Dreamer in Disguise,” to the conscience-dawning “Once You See,” to Carrie’s break-out number, “Why Not Me?” And the large cast brings honesty to both its songs and scenes.
Set in contemporary small-town Maine (with designer Stephen H. Carmody’s cagelike metal lockers suggesting a lower circle of Hell), the show homes in on Carrie White (Callie Johnson), the much-abused high school misfit. Carrie’s mother, Margaret (Katherine L. Condit), betrayed by a man, is the most virulent of Christian fundamentalists, and her wildly misguided efforts to wholly control and “protect” her daughter ultimately backfire. Of course Carrie’s prom night is a dream-turned-nightmare.
As Carrie, Johnson, an actress of direct emotional connection (who gave a hint of her transformative powers in “Pal Joey” not long ago), demonstrates those morphing skills once again here. She is lovely. And as Margaret, the gaunt, ashen and fierce Condit turns “When There’s No One” into a Shakespearean soliloquy.
Rochelle Therrien is first-rate as Sue, the popular girl who suddenly grows up and finds empathy for Carrie along with her poetic boyfriend, Tommy, well- played by Henry McGinnis. Samantha Dubina is perfectly hateful as Chris, the rich, mean-spirited popular girl. And Kate Garassino is the warm-hearted gym teacher, although as most misfits know, gym class can be more traumatic than a prom.