CARRIE: THE MUSICAL

Carrie: The Musical has made a sensational arrival at Cal State Fullerton just in time for Halloween, but it’s not just the show’s “scary musical” elements that give this rare college production event status.

It’s hard to imagine a better show (or talent showcase) for a college to stage than Carrie. Not only are all but a few characters virtually the same age as the performers playing them, the roles offer multiple opportunities to shine—dramatically, vocally, and choreographically. Plus unlike other teen musicals, Carrie has not been done to death, though (spoiler alert) I can’t say the same for most of its characters’ fates.

Actually, it’s a bit of a miracle that Carrie: The Musical is still around for its CSUF staging.

The show’s 1988 Broadway debut opened and closed in rapid succession and a 2012 off-Broadway revival didn’t last all that much longer.

Still, musical theater (and horror) fans had good reason to be optimistic back in ’88. Carrie: The Musical was not only based on a popular novel by the master of contemporary horror, its 1974 film adaptation had elevated director Brian De Palma and star Sissy Spacek to new levels of stardom.

True, a bullied high school misfit with a deranged religious fanatic of a mother might not seem the stuff of a traditional “musical comedy,” but times had changed since the days of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hart/Hammerstein and by the late ‘80s Broadway audiences were surely ready for something meatier (and bloodier) than previous fare.

At the very least, composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford had come up with a musical’s most critical element, tuneful songs that not only propel the plot but stick in the memory, a fact easily attested to by anyone who has heard the show’s long-awaited 2012 Premiere Cast Recording.

12144648_10153692567278126_2167887791178235836_n Book writer Lawrence D. Cohen and lyricist Pitchford have updated Carrie’s story to the Facebook-Instagram present, Carrie’s classmates ubiquitous cell phones making her humiliation at their hands more publicly devastating than it was thirty or forty years ago, and in so doing the duo have helped to eliminate criticisms of being “dated” (or at the very least a period piece).

If I’ve avoided much synopsizing, it’s for obvious reasons. (Is there anyone who’s never read King’s novel, seen De Palma’s film or its 2013 remake, or hasn’t at least heard about Carrie and the havoc she wreaks?)

Suffice it to say that King/De Palma fans won’t be disappointed, and as anyone who’s listened to the 2012 recording can tell you, from its opening number “In” and Act Two Opener “A Night We’ll Never Forget,” to its power-ballad title song, to the heartstoppingly beautiful “Dreamer In Disguise,” “Once You See,” “Unsuspecting Hearts,” and “When There’s No One,” to its show-stopping anthem to bitchery “The World According To Chris,” this is one musical which promises what every musical should deliver, a score you’ll want to hear again and again.

12122651_10153692566508126_8324500336664433695_n Director James R. Tauli* recognizes that Carrie circa 2015 can no longer be seen simply as the tale of a misfit’s telekinetic destruction of an entire class of high school seniors. The Internet’s seemingly daily reports of teen suicides reveal the consequences of bullying in a cyber age, and Tauli makes it clear from the barrage of cell phone images sent out even as Carrie sits crouched on the locker room floor surrounded by tampons hurled at her by mean girls getting pleasure out of pain that the focus here will be on the consequences of the strong taking out their anger and frustrations on the meek.

Those cruel Instagram and Facebook pix are just one of the many ingenious ways Tauli has elected to use projections throughout Carrie, from the police procedural black-and-white videos of Sue’s interrogation to the lyrics of Carrie’s show-opening “In” (“Failure!” “Loser!” “I don’t exist.”) to scene-setting images that transform the show’s versatile gymnasium set into a church, a library, Carrie’s votive candle-filled house, etc.

12088202_10153692566983126_8982041502188871818_n In addition, choreographer William F. Lett*’s dance steps in ensemble numbers like “In,” “The World According To Chris,” and “A Night We’ll Never Forget” (to name just three) seem designed not just to show off his own and his cast’s talents but in the service of telling Carrie’s story and revealing the emotions raging inside these complex teen characters.

As for the book, movie(s), and musical’s now legendary grand finale, it provides one gut punch after another as staged, not for shock value, but for maximum emotional effect.

Carrie proves a couldn’t-be-better showcase for junior and senior class musical theater majors in Cal State Fullerton’s renowned BFA program, though truth be told, the show wouldn’t work nearly as well were Ellingson not a member of the Class Of 2015.

12088347_10153692566693126_2482847014888270985_n With her large expressive eyes gazing out from a lovely, still childlike face, Ellingson makes us believe that Carrie is only now entering puberty (the initial shower scene is devastating), making the discovery of her inner strengths and her transformation at the prom all the more powerful, and wow can this Carrie sing.

Supporting cast members offer one gem of a performance after another.

Elizabeth Campbell’s Sue radiates goodness and possesses lovely soprano pipes. Katie Lee gives us a Chris whose outward prettiness masks a mean girl’s twisted philosophy of life, though Chris may well have met her match in 2014-15 Star-Making Performance Scenie winner Taylor M. Hartsfield as bitch queen Norma.

12088412_10153692566018126_1712514336734722889_n Rising CSUF star Dylan David Farris is every Carrie’s ideal prom date  as Tommy Ross, his all-American goodness in diametric opposition to dynamic newbie’s Kyle Pazdel’s scary blend of sex appeal and evil as Billy.

Cody Bianchi’s Freddy, Quentin Carbajal’s George, Hannah Clair’s Helen, Marqell Edward Clayton’s Stokes, and Allison Jane Parker’s Frieda are all absolutely terrific as are triple-threat ensemble members Lily Bryson, Kristina Dizon, Brian Gonzalez, Colby Hamann, Scout Lepore, Christopher Mosley, Spencer Ty Pierson, Adriana Rodriguez, Joe Stein, and Erin Tierney.

Elyssa Alexander may be the same age as her fellow cast members, but she is believably warm and effective as a Ms. Gardner probably only a year or two out of college, and Kelvin M. Rhodes II does first-rate work as both Mr. Stephens and Reverend Bliss.

The recorded voices of David Nevell and Anne James appear on video as Male Interrogator and Female Interrogator.

Finally, the pivotal role of Margaret White is given star treatment by guest artist (and CSUF grad) Brooke Aston, whose glorious, more mature pipes blend exquisitely with Ellingson’s youthful soprano belt and who exhibits subtle but gut-wrenching dramatic chops.

Like Fred Kinney*’s scenic design and Ben Hawkins’ projections, Karen Toledo’s costumes, John Favreau’s lighting, Crishia Peet’s sound, Amanda Zukle’s hair and makeup, and guest artist Michael Polak’s fight choreography are indistinguishable from what you’d find at our finest local regional theaters, and the same can be said about Mitchell Hanlon*’s impeccable musical direction and the pit orchestra (Jeff Askew, Rod Bagheri, Hanlon himself, Donovan Raitt, Jason Rosenquist, and Steve Velez) he conducts.

Cailin Luneburg is stage manager and Ruben Bolivar, Ariel Diaz, Kayla Hammett, and Nicole Patten are assistant stage managers. Lacey Beegun is associate choreographer.

Considering Cal State Fullerton’s track record with big-stage musicals like Legally Blonde, Carousel, and Kiss Me Kate, it is high praise indeed to state that Carrie: The Musical is the very best CSUF production I’ve seen since Rent first introduced me to the university’s uber-talented musical theater BFA majors five years ago.

See it, or risk Carrie’s wrath … and that is something you do not want to do.

Note: No press release was sent to me by Cal State Fullerton requesting a review nor was the above article solicited by Cal State Fullerton in any way.

*CSUF Faculty

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Little Theatre, California State University Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Through November 1. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 8:00; Saturday and Sunday at 2:00. Reservations: 657 278-3371
http://www.fullerton.edu/Arts/theatredance/events.html

–Steven Stanley
October 25, 2015
Photos: Mark Ramont