‘Carrie’ – a most unlikely musical delivers

A Theatre Review by John Busbee

October 9, 2014 

StageWest Theater Company opens its 2014-2015 Season with its enthusiastic challenge: delve into a word of bold plays, be part of the adventurous audiences. Carrie the musical returns us to StageWest’s earlier season-opening signature of beginning with memorable musicals: Urinetown: The Musical (2006), The Great American Trailer Park Musical (2007), Reefer Madness (2008), and Forbidden Broadway (2009). Even 2010, following a special late summer production of insightful founding of Alcoholics Anonymous play, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the trend continued (The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee), then Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2011). 2012 and 2013 broke the musical trend with exceptional shows, Superior Donuts and Next to Normal. 2014 returns to the musical fanfare of the new StageWest season, another filled with a promising theatrical journey for its diverse and enthusiastic audiences to savor. Carrie the musical is heavily influenced by Stephen King’s groundbreaking (at the time) novel, “Carrie,” and the original 1976 film adaptation. This show likely will resonate more strongly with younger audiences not as familiar to previous versions of this story.

Carrie the musical, music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and book by Lawrence D. Cohen, was destined for a Broadway journey as troubled as its title character. Its 1988 opening was less than kind, with the show closing after only 5 performances. Fast-forward to 2009 with a reading, with the original team replacing many of the original songs, and a planned revival Off-Broadway. Carrie the musical found new life, and has been reaching across America to new audiences, and new-found appreciation. StageWest gives Central Iowa audiences another rare opportunity to experience such a show well before it becomes mainstream.

Director Todd Buchacker molds a diverse, energized cast into a focused force. With an experienced and talented production team (Ben Hagen, Musical Director, and David Decker, Choreographer), and a creative playground from the bounteous mind of Set Designer Tim Wisgerhof, Buchacker pushes his ensemble to capture and deliver the core story of bullying, carried to its supernatural and revengeful conclusion. While the singing voices aren’t perfect, each performer brings an honest and raw strength to her or his music. The ensemble numbers resonate with driving force, and Decker’s choreography adds elemental power to the impact.

The Kum & Go Theater space shows its flexibility through Wisgerhof’s vision, filled with an expansive, open-studded design with levels, cloaking the space with a somber tone. Lighting Designer Clay Daggett meets the challenge of highlighting and shadowing as effective enhancements to the action. In partnership, the scenic and lighting design elements become non-verbal characters, adding much.

Nicole Miller brings a masterfully troubled, vulnerable persona to her Carrie. She delivers her songs with a ranging power which draws the audience to her, with her Act 2 opening “Why Not Me” foreshadowing her fate especially poignant when countered by the company’s more selfish prom desires. As her nemesis, Chris Hargensen, Ashley Wiser brings a vitriolic entitlement to her role and songs. Travis Monroe Neese is Wiser’s boyfriend, Billy Nolan, serving as the knuckle-dragging slacker who is proud of his stupidity. Both bring such a dark force to their characters as to elicit visceral responses from the audience. Andie Newell has the challenging task of serving as post-apocalyptic narrator, compassionate school mate and noble girlfriend – and, does it well. Although heavy-voiced in her singing, Kelly Marie Schaefer brings a fundamentalist inflexibility to Carrie’s mother, Margaret. Sarah Hinzman brings one of the most complete characters to life as Miss Gardner, the gym teacher. Her fine singing matches her solid acting consistency. The rest of the students, all bullying sycophants to Chris and Billy, rightfully draw “wish you could slap’em” responses from viewers.

Staging on such an expansive set presents a challenge, as actors and lighting sometimes missed each other, leaving the audience to finally find performers in the dark, while another part of the set was lit. There also were occasional challenges with performers hearing the orchestra, because there were times when the singers simply didn’t hit the right notes. These are all correctable issues and, as this review was based on the final dress rehearsal, are sure to be corrected. The overall experience of Carrie the musical is another reason StageWest Theater Company deserves attention, as it continues to bring cutting edge, well produced shows to Iowa.