Theater Review: CARRIE “THE KILLER MUSICAL EXPERIENCE”

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SHOCK’s Heidi Honeycutt drops the bucket on the LA production of CARRIE: THE KILLER MUSICAL EXPERIENCE.

The advertising for the Los Angeles musical CARRIE: THE KILLER MUSICAL EXPERIENCE calls it “immersive,” and that’s not an overstatement. The production’s scenic designer Stephen Gifford has transformed the 84 year-old Los Angeles Theater in Downtown LA into a high school gym populated by telepathic outcast Carrie White, her creepy deranged mother Margaret, the spiteful Chris Hargensen, teen dream Tommy Ross, and regretful (oh, so very regretful) Sue Snell. This musical version of Stephen King’s terrifying story is written by the screenwriter of the original 1976 film, Lawrence D. Cohen, and is directed by Brady Schwind.

CARRIE: THE KILLER MUSICAL EXPERIENCE is not a spoof, nor is it amateurish; it’s acted superbly and sung beautifully. The main set pieces, though minimal, are accompanied by strategic and thoughtful lighting and special effects that break the barrier between the audience and the stage. There actually is no stage, really; the actors perform in the middle of the high stands of auditorium bleachers built to seat the audience. Perhaps most impressive are the aerial stunts in which Chris (played by Valerie Rose Curiel) is tossed up in the air by Carrie’s telepathic anger at the climax of the prom, or when the “windows” above the bleachers break, raining down broken glass (aluminum confetti) on top of the audience’s heads.

Sadly, this most amazing and scariest of scenes (both of the original film and book) is given such short attention, rushing past the gore and violence extremely quickly. Likewise, when Carrie comes home, covered in blood, and has the ultimate showdown with her mother (Misty Cotton), it all goes by so fast – much faster than in either film version. This is, I’m sure, due to the director’s choices, but if the first half of the musical weren’t extremely long and filled with character-building songs about high school and first love, I wouldn’t have minded that the horror aspects of the musical were so few and far between. Attempts at emulating the De Palma slow motion and split screen direction are there, but rare. When they are included, the effect is pretty awesome and surreal.

Fans of the novel Carrie, the original film CARRIE, and even the remake, will notice the empty feeling at the end when there’s really not much blood or violence. I mean, it is a live musical, so of course there are limitations to what they can show. There are no hands sticking up out of gravestones, no bloody bathtub cleansing, no succession of telepathic knives sticking Margaret to the crucifix, no burning house falling down over Carrie at the end of the story, and, most sad of all, just a minuscule amount of blood is dumped on Carrie at prom. If these changes are not because they wanted to “tone it down,” then they must be because they simply could not perform these scenes with the limitations of live theater.

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Amazing, amazing performances by Misty Cotton as Margaret White and Emily Lopez as Carrie White make up for this. The captivating Garrett Marshall as Billy Nolan and Valerie Rose Curiel as Chris Hargensen are great foils to bland Tommy Nolan and Sue Snell, played by the so-so Jon Robert Hall and Kayla Parker.

The music, which was originally written in the 1980s, feels fairly timeless but is a reminder of the fantastic history of the musical itself. During its premiere 1988 run in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, actress Barbara Cook was nearly decapitated on an elaborate set (which makes the fact that THIS version of the musical has such elaborate sets pretty exciting. Maybe someone will be decapitated? I mean, that would be horrible). It was a flop on Broadway later that year, and it wasn’t until 2012 that it was finally revived.

Now, playing in Los Angeles this month and part of November 2015 at the historic Los Angeles Theater in Downtown LA, the production has taken full advantage of the new location to fully engross the audience. The theater itself, built in 1931 in the French Baroque style, is dazzling, with countless rooms, such as a ballroom and elaborate restrooms, and has been infiltrated to become a sort of CARRIE-themed haunted house. The production has created a faux pig farm tableau, Carrie’s bedroom, the girl’s locker room, and – of course in the ballroom – a balloon-filled school-gym prom. All of these rooms must be passed on the way to the restrooms, the concessions stand, and the exit, making the intermission pretty special. The theater building itself is dilapidated and only open to private rentals. Floors are buckling, gorgeous tapestry paintings are faded, ornate fixtures are falling apart. It is a massive lawsuit waiting to happen, so I am sure the insurance policy is fantastic. The unbelievable ceiling is riddled with bullet holes (about which the employees seem to know nothing).

The theater couldn’t have picked a better location, especially if you discount the fact that the Los Angeles Theater is smack in the middle of the vilest and disgusting part of Los Angeles. When you park in one of the massively overpriced lots and walk to the theater, you’ll pass dozens of starving, disabled, homeless people literally dying in the streets, begging the white hipsters on their way to the theater to see CARRIE: THE KILLER MUSICAL EXPERIENCE for food, money, anything. The oppressive California October heat, still in the 90s, makes the streets smell like garbage (or maybe it is just the garbage that smells like garbage). In any case, most people from New York should feel right at home, as I imagine being a privileged white hipster ignoring the poor and enjoying the aroma of cooking street garbage is normal for their theater attendees. For Los Angeles, it is a new and worsening phenomenon. It is part of the added attraction of going to see CARRIE: THE KILLER MUSICAL EXPERIENCE at this particular location. In fact, it is so shockingly heartbreaking that once you get inside the theater, you won’t even notice that the building doesn’t actually have air conditioning.

At the screening I attended, the cast received a wholehearted, standing ovation from the entire audience, me included. If you go into it knowing that it isn’t CARRIE the film, but CARRIE: THE KILLER MUSICAL EXPERIENCE, you won’t be too disappointed. What you sacrifice in horror you gain in talented people singing and dancing. It’s a fair trade.

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