Carrie: The Musical (June 5, 2014)

Callie Johnson in Bailiwick Chicago’s premiere of ’Carrie: The Musical’
Callie Johnson in Bailiwick Chicago’s premiere of ’Carrie: The Musical’ (Source:Michael Brosilow)

 

I’m nursing a complicated reaction to Bailiwick Chicago’s Windy City premiere of the 2012 Off-Broadway revival version of “Carrie: The Musical.” From one angle, the timeless plot of high school bullying leading to disastrous consequences for everyone involved seems more urgent and necessary a story than ever. And there can be little doubt that the production employs catchy musical numbers sung and danced most admirably by a tremendously talented cast.

And yet I have two big “buts.” The lesser is a Margaret White, Carrie’s extremely and destructively Christian mother, played with entirely too much sympathy by an otherwise gifted Katherine L. Condit. The actress displays the occasional terrifying delusion required by the part, the background needed to account for Carrie’s utter and complete sense of earthly abandonment and isolation. But there’s just a touch too much sweetness, an underlying suggestion of good intentions gone wrong that makes the subplot’s culmination unbelievable. Condit’s Margaret would never kill her child.

The decision also neutralizes the impact of the character’s religious extremism at a time when the culture wars, particularly for women, have never felt more threatening. Because I have no way of knowing if the call to play Ms. White this way was made by Director Michael Driscoll or Condit herself, I will only say it’s a mistake that cuts two ways. Happily there is still time to correct it before the show’s run concludes on July 12.

The larger objection I have to the production can be found at the back end of this review’s first sentence: “Windy City premiere of the 2012 Off-Broadway revival version” of the musical. If it takes that many adjectives to describe a work, there’s a chance it’s going to come off as derivative. And indeed the conclusion to Bailiwick’s 2013 – 14 season does feel used in many instances.

It’s like a game of theatrical telephone. You start with Stephen King’s seminal 1974 novel, followed closely by the 1976 film starring Sissy Spacek. You pass through the original Broadway musical in 1988, followed by the revival in 2012. We all try to forget the 2013 cinematic reimagining before we end on the Richard Christiansen stage at the Victory Gardens Theater.

Like the childhood game of telephone, if the initial message is pleasant, the result will retain some or all of its features. But there’s no denying that the final product is a little diluted. And that’s what we’re left with at the conclusion of Bailiwick’s “CARRIE: The Musical.”

A special salute to Samantha Dubina in the role of head mean girl Chris. She is alternately funny and frightening, a modern, bitchy caricature of the one percent youth class.

As I said, the cast is winsome and with the exception of Condit, surely not to be faulted for the production’s secondariness. A special salute to Samantha Dubina in the role of head mean girl Chris. She is alternately funny and frightening, a modern, bitchy caricature of the one percent youth class.

The actress nails the showstopper “The World According to Chris” toward the middle of act one. With her powerful voice she manages beautiful and snide at the same time. That is no easy balance, especially in song. When Chris gets what she richly (pun intended) deserves on prom night, you’ll both cheer and regret the end of Dubina’s presence.

Molly Coleman displays great comic timing as Frieda, the only other person who seems as happy as Carrie about the approaching end of high school. At the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Sawyer Smith, the darkly attractive actor who brings surprising life to the character of Billy, a slacker ball of hormones.

If there’s anything truly perfect about the production however, it’s Callie Johnson as mousy, mystical anti-heroine Carrie White. We take our seats knowing how the story ends, but in Johnson’s hands, it’s hard not to root for a different outcome. We want this Carrie to go to her 20-year reunion with a PhD after her name and a handsome husband (or wife) in tow. The whole ability to move objects with her mind thing becomes oddly incidental as the audience basks in the actress’ aching vulnerability.

I have the impression that this review reflects the disjointedness of the Bailiwick’s project overall. Perhaps that’s as it should be. And to further complicate matters, despite the strong criticisms herein, the production is worth a look. Just don’t put it at the top of your early summer viewing list.

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