In 1976 up-and-coming film director Brian De Palma made a little film out of then unknown writer Stephen King's debut novel Carrie, about a bullied teenager who unleashes her telekinetic powers against her tormentors. The film became a classic gothic horror hit, cemented the career of De Palma and kick-started the success of King's books and film adaptations.
Fast forward to the 1980s and emerging song writers Michael Gore (music) and Dean Pitchford (lyrics), fresh from a huge success with Fame (the film), collaborate with Lawrence D Cohen (book, and screenwriter for the film version of Carrie) to adapt the story into a stage musical.
After numerous changes and an English season plagued with problems, the show finally opened on Broadway in 1988 starring Betty Buckley as the mother, but quickly went into the annals of Broadway history – as one of the most spectacular and expensive flops ever – when it closed after just 16 previews and 5 performances.
The film has remained a cult favourite with horror buffs and not surprisingly, interest in the failed stage adaptation has been constant. Not long ago the creative trio decided to go back to their subject and re-work the show, culminating in a successful small New York showcase with Marin Mazzie playing Carrie's mother.
This incarnation has finally reached our shores with first, a Sydney production and now, a Melbourne production from newly created company Ghost Light.
The first impression as the show begins is this is not so bad. A rousing opening number featuring the ensemble sets the scene and sparks interest. Gore & Pitchford's songs and music are much better than expected, not overly memorable, but work well. The same unfortunately cannot be said for Cohen's book, which plays far too much on (American) teenage vernacular and often sounds corny. When audience members are giggling at some of the lines, you have to question whether the creators wanted to write a camped up version or whether this production has decided on that track.
The show carefully tries to re-create the film and herein lies its faults. Act One takes far too long to get to the Prom Night climax. Act Two then rushes through the events with the major moment that everyone is waiting for (and the film's most famous one) anti-climactic and poorly devised. Whether this is in the writing, the direction or staging is not clear.
The other problem lies with some performances, which would probably have worked better with different choices. The central role of Carrie White is played by Emily Milledge as an awkward teen with a constant nervous spasm, rather than as an introverted innocent girl/child unaware of what is happening to her. A more understated performance and controlled change in appearance would probably have been far more effective and ultimately more chilling. Vocally though, Milledge is excellent.
Chelsea Gibb fares better as Margaret White – Carrie's religious, controlling mother. Gibb brings a great deal of sensibility and light and shade to her performance, and it is a pleasure to see her developing her skills as she tackles more dramatic roles. The performance is quite far removed from Piper Laurie's almost demonic mother in the film, but works quite well.
Strong support come from Stephen Wheat, Kathleen Amarant and Hollie James, with an enthusiastic ensemble cast of young performers.
Andrew Leach's music direction and the band complement the action, with Nicholas J Reich creating some effective sound effects and Jason Bovaird again putting together another fine atmospheric lighting design. Lisa Minett's choreography works well with Terence O'Connell's staging.
This Carrie is not the disaster that the history books have recorded and while far from perfect, holds enough talent and curiosity to hopefully entice Melbourne's music theatre buffs to go and check it out. What it does illustrate is that the current local Independent/Fringe music theatre scene is presenting far more interesting product than the endless streams of mostly average revivals being churned out by our commercial producers.
Ghost Light in association with Moving Light Productions
CARRIE – THE MUSICAL
adapted by Lawrence D Cohen | music and lyrics by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford
Directed by Terence O’ Connell
Venue: Chapel off Chapel | 12 Little Chapel St, Prahran VIC
Dates: 25 September – 12 October 2014
Tickets: $49.50 – $39.50