There must be something in the air, and it's something grotesque. Or maybe it's just that it's October. In any case, the same weekend that the San Francisco Opera closed its operatic version of Dolores Claiborne, Ray of Light Theatre opened a musical version of another Stephen King novel, Carrie.
This West Coast premiere at the Mission's venerable Victoria Theatre is a long time coming. One of the most infamous and expensive flops in Broadway history, Carrie the Musical opened in May of 1988 and closed three days later. Its tryout run earlier that year in Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare's home town, had been plagued with disasters such as stage blood shorting microphones and one of the stars being nearly beheaded by the scenery on opening night. The show was buried for decades thereafter, with only an occasional surreptitious student production popping up every now and then despite the soundtrack and rights being unavailable. But the show's original creators, writer Lawrence D. Cohen (who also wrote the screenplay of the 1976 movie version and is weirdly credited as "Leonard Cohen" throughout Ray of Light's program) and composers Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, finally reunited to completely revamp it for a 2012 off-Broadway revival, replacing a third of the songs outright.
A Stephen King musical doesn't seem nearly as weird of an idea now as it might have in the 1980s, because stage musicals of cult movies and all manner of perverse topics are commonplace nowadays. After Bat Boy the Musical and Evil Dead the Musical, there's something almost quaint about the simple story of a shy teenage oddball who's picked on in high school and just wants to fit in.
In a different world, half of Stephen King's protagonists would have been the X-Men: a telekinetic in Carrie, a pyrokinetic in Firestarter, telepaths in The Shining and Dreamcatcher, a precognitive in The Dead Zone, a healer in The Green Mile, and so on. They're lonely, often terrified people who don't understand what's happening to them, and terrible things usually happen as a result. If only there were a benevolent advocate for mutant rights seeking them out, banding them together and showing them how to use their powers for the common good. But alas, that sort of thing just doesn't happen in the real world, and is ultimately more far-fetched than the powers themselves. In life as in horror fiction, waiting around for someone to come fix your life isn't a very good plan.
Setting unearthly horror in some recognizable approximation of the day-to-day world of just plain folks is what King is known for, but the story of Carrie White is especially relatable. She's an introverted misfit who's teased mercilessly by her fellow students, and who doesn't know that experience, from one side or another? But of course not everyone was raised by a mother who's a borderline psychotic religious fanatic, nor do they have the power to move objects with their mind. Pushing someone like that too far is probably a very bad idea.
Cristina Ann Oeschger as Carrie White.
The interesting thing about Carrie is that it's actually pretty darned touching. If you're familiar with the book or the movie (a remake of which is coming out this month), you're probably in it primarily for the infamous prom scene that's aptly foreshadowed in song as "A Night We'll Never Forget." But the big climax plays as anticlimactic and a little silly after all the buildup. Far more effective is the buildup itself.
It helps that Ray of Light's production, smoothly staged by artistic director Jason Hoover, is blessed with a terrific Carrie who also happens to be a real-life high school junior. Cristina Ann Oeschger has a powerful, radiant singing voice and feelingly embodies the painfully closed-off presence of someone who's had to keep her head down and struggle through life as an obstacle course. The moments when she has a ray of hope that she might be able to have a normal moment as a normal girl are as heartbreaking as her well-earned paranoia because nobody's ever had a kind word for her.
A couple people at least try to reach out to Carrie, most successfully Jessica Coker's stern, no-nonsense gym coach. Courtney Merrell makes a touching point-of-view character as Sue Snell, a popular girl who feels awful about going along with everybody else in teasing Carrie and wants to make it up to her. Sue and her sports star boyfriend Tommy (Nikita Burshteyn) are the only nice kids in school, as everyone else is a chorus of ice cold sociopaths. You know, just like in any other high school. A chirpy Riley Krull is more peppy than formidable as Carrie's nemesis Chris Hargensen, and doesn't quite have the force of personality to be a credible ringleader of the mean girls. But the sugar-coatedness of her social Darwinist anthem "The World According to Chris" makes it stick in the mind more than some of the less inane numbers.
The songs by Gore and Pitchford, the Oscar-winning team behind the title theme from Fame, are pretty catchy, if sometimes dated in their sentimentality. Dean Pitchford's lyrics are solid and straightforward, eschewing fancy wordplay to just say what the heck they mean. It's refreshing to hear actual full-length songs in a musical, because not a lot of new shows bother with that sort of thing anymore. The tunes Carrie's mother sings are on the sappy side, but the fact that she's so unstable and unpredictable (aptly conveyed in Heather Orth's twitchy portrayal) makes them eerily unnerving. They're played well by the unseen six-piece orchestra conducted by Ben Prince, and choreographer Amanda Folena brings them to life with jerky, convulsive ensemble dances with lots of fist-pumping while hunched over, the sort of thing we've seen a lot of in rebellious-youth musicals ever since Spring Awakening.
Kelly Tighe's set seems like a curious choice -- high slatted walls as if for an oversize barn, which doesn't particularly suggest any of the locations in the story. The set does lead to one shocking effect toward the end, though, which makes up for a lot. Different locations are suggested by Erik Scanlon's projected backgrounds and a couple of movable walls.
In a way, the show puts us in the position of Carrie's jeering classmates. If you go to smirk at the awesome spectacle of one of Broadway's most notoriously lousy musicals, you may be in for a surprise. Carrie may have been that at one time, but the revamped version has more emotional resonance than you might expect. Aside from a cheap scare at the end that would fit in better with a campier endeavor, this Carrie is nothing to laugh at.
Carrie the Musical runs through November 2, 2013 at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit rayoflighttheatre.com.
All photos by Erik Scanlon.