by Drew Rowsome - Production photos by Scott Gorman
The girls who tormented the period-racked Carrie in the shower must be punished and gym teacher Miss Gardner (Emma Robson) strides forward and barks, "Line up, eyes front." Turns out the audience is about to be punished as well. For some reason that line, that admonition, is the one that was picked for the directorial concept of Hart House Theatre's Carrie: The Musical.
Curiosity ran high for this production. The Broadway version was a legendary flop but the film is beloved for artistic and camp reasons. Carrie: The Musical's genesis was in the late '80s, a period of time when half-baked scores were pumped up with spectacle to dazzle or frazzle audiences. Stripping Carrie: The Musical down and finding the heart, perhaps connecting with Stephen King's original novel, is a fascinating idea. Thematically referencing the hot button topic of bullying is shrewd. Placing it all within a black box proscenium and casting an age-appropriate and talented cast offered possibilities. I was really looking forward to Carrie: The Musical, I was extremely curious. But then I am always curious and oddly excited about anything with the tagline "The Musical."
Alas it is all for naught. This Carrie: The Musical is a musical theatre cock tease. The opening number limps onto the stage with twitchy mime choreography (that never gets better) and the entire cast standing, in a line, eyes front, singing earnestly out to the audience. Then Tiyana Scott, as Carrie, enters and unleashes an extraordinary held note that transfixes. Maybe there is hope.
But where there is hope there is also confusion. Colour-blind casting is a worthy endeavour and Scott is very talented, but she is also the victim of tone-deaf casting. When Carrie, the bullied victim, is the only person of colour onstage, the racial aspect becomes an overtone. Which would have been intriguing if it had been followed through on or if even one person of colour had been cast in even the chorus. But it isn't and they weren't. Through sheer force of personality and bravado, mixing vulnerability with a strong inner core, Scott manages to erase the confusion on many occasions, but it keeps cropping up as a very curious puzzle.
And standing and singing to the audience works when it is a powerful score. Though many songs from Carrie: The Musical have become cabaret standards, most of it is pablum, middle-of-the-road Broadway-lite. The band and cast valiantly sweat to pump emotion into pedestrian lyrics and meandering melodies. Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford have written some great guilty pleasures - notably "Fame" - but there is not a single one here. The song "Carrie" works as well as it does simply because it lifts the hook from Frankie Valli's "Sherry" and pummels it into the ground.
At intermission we, and everyone who had been either giggling or sitting slack-jawed around us, debated just slipping off into the night. There was always the faint hope that it would somehow tip over into camp, but there was also that more tantalizing tease. The lyrics promised "blood" and "fire" and trips to hell, and we all know how satisfying the movie's climax is. Will there be a "Splatter Zone?" Who could resist? The second act begins with the cast doing more twitchy mime but singing "You ain't seen nothing yet. It's gonna be a night we'll never forget." They are all so sincere and determined, that I believe them.
Then the cast romps out for the prom scene dressed in day-glo tutus for the women and suspenders over bare chests for the men, splashed in black light reactive paint. You could hear the audience gasp. Then regroup. Perhaps it was part of the special effects for the conflagration to come. It wasn't. It was someone's design choice or what someone thinks a prom in the '80s - or a contemporary rave-styled prom? - is like.
Then the worst crime of all: Carrie: The Musical, like a good girl at prom, doesn't put out. Doors slam and people die while Scott gesticulates and the strobe lights strobe. No fire as the poster promised. But, especially odd for a musical, none of it is accompanied by strong visual clues or sound effects. Surely the flatly-tuned drums that have competed with the tinkly piano arpeggios to struggle to inject excitement into the score, could have spared a rim shot? A cymbal crash?
It is a shame as there is some nice work from the cast. Brittany Miranda as Carrie's mother invests herself to a terrifying degree and has no fear of being over-the-top, camp and exercising a voice that soars into operatic glory. She injects some much needed life despite being saddled with no motivation and the worst lyrics among some very bathetic lyrics. And she and Scott have chemistry, the duets between the two are the few stand and deliver moments that work.
Jordan Kenny is a sensitive Tommy Ross with a fine voice, the hot nerd antithesis of William Katt's bland beauty. The bland beauty roles are given to the extraordinarily handsome Bevan Buhler (though no-one could pull off the Jesus fright wig) and Ryota Kaneko, who is mainly called upon to dance in various states of undress, the inexplicable dream ballet being the most egregious. Fortunately both of them make very good eye candy, but the unexplored blatant homoeroticism is, while welcome, unexplored and possibly unintentional.
Matthew Benerson does get to add a gay subtext and he is charming as well as a chipper hoofer and singer. Jacqueline Godbout has a wonderful moment as she watches her Tommy/Kenny, with whom she has a very sweet chemistry, dance with Carrie, but the score does her no favours. Madison Sekulin and Stephane Gaudet as the bad girl and bad boy, try to inject some sexual heat but it is high school as a pejorative as well as as a setting. Spunky Paige Foskett (Anne of Green Gables) makes the most of a small role, she is sassy, a literal cock tease, and somehow manages to be the only cast member to stage their death scene where the stage is actually lit so the audience can see. Clever girl.
And then they all line up, eyes front, and sing. Maybe director Richard Ouzanian had some grand concept in mind that just didn't come to fruition. For someone who has seen and criticized, often vehemently, so many musicals and so much theatre, it is baffling. Maybe the idea was to critique bullying by bullying the audience? There is a way to find out: there is a special A Director's Dinner with Richard Ouzanian where there will be conversation, and presumably explanations, over a meal featuring the tantalizingly gruesome and curious sounding 'Grilled "Chicken a la Stephen King."' However my curiosity is what brought me to Carrie: The Musical, and I don't want to be disappointed again. Or worse, feel like Carrie White (and I suspect Tiyana Scott) who, in her most affecting, and most odd, vocal line, warbled, "It's like being on Mars. Now that I'm here, I'm not sure what to do."
Carrie: The Musical continues until Sat, Feb 4 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle. harthousetheatre.ca