Carrie: The Musical at Bailiwick Chicago, Theatre Review – A Bloody Mess


In 1988 a musical version of Stephen King’s horror novel (and 1976 film classic) Carrie opened on Broadway where it was universally bombed by critics as the worst thing they’d ever seen and it closed after only five performances with a loss of over $8 million dollars. It was a record financial failure for a Broadway show at the time, but it was far surpassed earlier this year when Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark closed with a staggering $64 million dollar loss. Carrie was a musical deemed so terrible that it inspired an entire book about Broadway flops entitled “Not Since Carrie” and thus the musical seemed destined to be the stuff of Broadway legend. The creative team consisting of Michael Gore (music), Dean Pitchford (lyrics), and Lawrence D. Cohen (book) were so devastated by its immense failure that they refused the rights to ever remount the show again.


Callie Johnson (center) and the cast


But out of this disaster Carrie lived on with an almost cult-like status among musical theatre queens. It had that guilty pleasure quality to it that is often described as being “so bad that it’s good”. Even one of my former roommates was obsessed with Carrie. He had collected bootleg recordings of the original production, the entire score, press clippings, the playbills, secret audio recordings, and even hidden rehearsal footage. And he wasn’t alone. A large minority of thespians were fascinated by Carrie and its monolithic failure. They deemed that the show had been judged way too harshly, that the original director had made the show too campy and obscured the show’s heart, and that the 3 creators didn’t workshop it enough before allowing it to come to Broadway.


So after being repeatedly pushed, the creators finally gave-in to the demands and decided to re-do Carrie to see if it could actually work this time. Over a period of three and half years they did countless workshops, re-wrote scenes that didn’t work the first time, cut and added songs, and it was finally remounted Off-Broadway in 2012 with a more scaled-down, tame, and realistic production (of which Bailiwick Chicago’s current production is based). The results weren’t much better though. It’s true that the updated Carrie did enjoy a longer run of 80 performances this time, but it still got slammed by a majority of New York critics and ended up closing two weeks earlier than scheduled from poor ticket sales. It too was unable to recoup its original investment and was deemed a failure. After the revival’s early closing, the New York Times published an in-depth article dissecting why exactly it failed despite years of re-writes and workshops to improve it. The consensus seemed to be that no matter how well-acted, well-sung, re-staged, or re-imagined it was, Carrie just doesn’t work as a musical and probably never will.


(left to right) Callie Johnson and Katherine L. Condit


As with any work that is originally based on a novel or a movie you have to ask some questions from the start with the primary one being: why did this story HAVE to be a musical? The 1976 film version was so good just as it was. Did it really need to become a musical to be even better? Music is supposed to enhance what’s already there.


From what I saw on opening night of Bailiwick’s current production Carrie is only somewhat successful at this... And that is a very hesitant "somewhat". Yes there are some beautiful songs that give us some lovely insight into the emotional truth going on under the surface of the story such as “Why Not Me?” and “You Shine”. But those are very rare instances that are vastly outnumbered by some awful teeny bubblegum pop songs such as “Do Me a Favor” and “A Night We’ll Never Forget.” Those songs are side-by-side with more lackluster 1980s sound-alike pop-ballads like “Unsuspecting Hearts” and “Carrie” that seem to go against the darker colors in this tragic story and are all chalk full of cringe-inducing lyrics. Worse yet, Carrie’s book remains badly written. The original musical must’ve been really atrocious because in this “updated” version there are literally no shortages of bad stereotypes, corny jokes, and awkward dialogue exchanges that will undoubtedly produce many eye-rolls and heavy sighs in the audience. Carrie: the Musical is certainly not high art and it really shouldn’t pretend like it is.


(left to right) Henry McGinniss (Tommy), Rochelle Therrien (Sue) and (pictured in front) Callie Johnson (Carrie)


Yet even still I can’t say that Carrie is totally unworkable as a musical or a complete disaster. After all, if you think about it, the overall story of Carrie covers very similar themes as the overly successful musical Wicked. Yes there are some obvious differences, but both stories are about a weird outcast girl with magical powers fighting the popular ones who bully her. There’s also a good-looking popular guy that takes an inexplicable interest in her and in both musicals when things go wrong our heroines take revenge on everyone who did them wrong. And to an extent they’re also both about female empowerment, bullying, and fanaticism. Obviously what makes Wicked work and Carrie fail are its different tones. Wicked is a playful character study that lends itself easily to music, while Carrie is a psycho-horror tragedy that is very difficult to musicalize. Not to mention there’s a lot of death in Carrie, in fact all but one character is dead at the end of it. Whereas in Wicked the writer Steven Schwartz knew that in order to sell tickets he had to change the source material’s darker ending to have it appeal to a wider general audience. You can’t really get away with that in Carrie. It comes with the territory of the story because the film is so well-known. But it is also its biggest hurdle in trying to appeal to those outside of the insulated theatre-world. Who really wants to pay $40 a ticket to see a musical about a bullied teenager that murders all her high school classmates anyway? Don’t we see enough of that on the news already as it is?


Fortunately there is a shining light in Bailiwick Chicago’s current production and it comes mostly from its incredibly talented leading lady who absolutely nailed everything about her role. As Carrie White, Callie Johnson, gives some of the best work I’ve ever seen her do. Ms. Johnson, who I reviewed last year in Next to Normal (and I might add was recently featured in a KFC commercial where she bites into a chicken corsage), gives an emotionally unexpected and absorbing performance. I especially loved the transformation that Ms. Johnson goes through from shy outcast ugly-duckling to a glowing prom-night swan and finally into a vengeful mass murderer. My only note is that I wish there was a way to have Ms. Johnson bring out more of the weird creepiness in Carrie just a tad. I realize this isn’t necessarily a critique of Ms. Johnson’s excellent performance, but more the result of Mr. Cohen’s unfortunate writing. But part of what made Carrie White so interesting in the original film was that the kids didn’t just despise her because she was odd, they were genuinely creeped out by her weirdness. She was creepy in every sense of the word and in this way Carrie became an unwanted expression of the self-doubts and insecurities hidden in all the teenagers, and indeed inside all of us.


(left to right) Katherine L. Condit (Margaret) and Callie Johnson (Carrie)


Now maybe it was that Callie Johnson was so good that she outplayed those around her, or maybe it was that the actress playing Carrie’s religiously fanatical mother Margaret White overdid her character’s rigidity to an extreme level, or maybe the actress wasn’t feeling well on the night I attended. Whatever the case may have been, Katherine Condit’s performance left a lot more to be desired on opening night. Considering Ms. Condit’s impressive résumé, which includes some Broadway and National Tour credits, I found myself surprised and disappointed by how incredibly disconnected, dull, and amateurish her acting was throughout the show. Everything Ms. Condit did seemed so pre-planned with nearly all of her lines falling out as if on autopilot. Ms. Conduit’s reactions and especially her emotions also felt extremely forced. And vocally the actress sounded like she was straining a bit to sing. This was most noticeable in the “And Eve Was Weak” number which sounded more like screaming than singing at times. In Act 2 Ms. Condit’s rendition of “When There’s No One” which is easily the most emotional moment of the musical was not only partially mumbled so softly to the point of being completely incomprehensible, but the actress also internalizes the song so much that it was flat-out boring. Even the woman next to me dozed off halfway through it. The song is only 3 minutes long mind you. Margaret’s schizophrenic love-hate relationship with her daughter was neither as tender nor as dangerously fanatical as they could have been which only served to deflate an immense amount of psychological tension for a good majority of this production. I’ve seen Ms. Condit in a few other productions in Chicago where she was absolutley fantastic, breathtaking even, but this role is just not for her I'm sad to say.


(left to right) Callie Johnson (Carrie) and Henry McGinniss (Tommy)


This re-worked Carrie is annoyingly intercut throughout with an awkward Law & Order type of police interrogation of the only surviving character, Sue Snell, who is decently played by the young Rochelle Therrien (who looks like she’s been plucked from a generic teen show on the WB station). I have to hand it to Ms. Therrien though. Sue is written so poorly in this musical that it would be hard for any actress to give her much color. Rather than getting some intense moments that would really show Sue struggling with her own conflicting emotions and inner moral awareness she is instead given an entirely lame song called “Once You See” that doesn’t really do much to expand upon anything we didn’t already know in the story. Sue is given some really brainless lines such as, “Apologize? Oh Tommy that’s genius!” In addition to some lines that overshare too much like, “Something terrible is going to happen!” At times I really had to wonder if George Lucas had a hand in helping Mr. Cohen write the book.


As Sue’s boyfriend and Carrie’s prom-date, Tommy Ross, Henry McGinniss is stunning and radiant in this equally one-note role. Mr. McGinniss' inner charm, outward demeanor, and gorgeous vocals are perfectly suited to Tommy and he “shines” throughout the show. Mr. McGinniss is definitely making a great career for himself in the Chicago area. He is the quint-essential young leading man, and I hope to see more of this gifted actor in the future.


(left to right) Samantha Dubina (Chris) and Callie Johnson (Carrie)


Speaking of great talent Sawyer Smith never ceases to amaze me with his range as an actor. After seeing him recently as a flamboyant drag queen in RENT I would not have pictured him as Billy the tough, dumb, and overbearing bully in Carrie. However Mr. Sawyer surprised me. It’s been a delight to see just how far Mr. Smith has grown these past few years as an actor. Samantha Dubina as the evil-plotting “uber-bitch” Chris Parkens is also enjoyable to watch. Ms. Dubina appropriately fills in Chris at the outward and superficial level from the get-go, but the one tiny amount of vulnerability that she touched on in the last verse of her half-wit song, “The World According to Chris” was very nicely done.


Again though it is no fault of these two fine performers, Chris and Billy are the most badly written characters in the show. They’re presented more like clichés of bullies than actual bullies, and once again they are both given some really lousily-written lines that border on being cartoonish. The overall effect of it has them coming off more like SNL sketch comedy characters than real teenagers. Similarly the adult characters fare no better. The gym teacher, Ms. Gardner, played by an underwhelming, yet likeable Kate Garassino comes off as more meddling than helpful in yet another example of a one-note clichéd role.


Even worse are the feeble attempts made to update the story to the present with awkward references to Facebook, YouTube, and texting jammed in throughout the script that make it feel more like High School Musical or glee. The “Epilogue” at the very end of the musical treats the whole affair like an “afterschool special” or an “It Gets Better” clip with overtly literal cringe-worthy lyrics sung angelically by the cast asking us directly, “what does it cost to be kind?” Yes, it is that bad. I understand that only so much can be expected when older generations try to pen the voices of younger ones, but the writing for the entire teenage ensemble feels so detached from reality that it constantly draws us out of the moment. Despite the awful material this young cast is definitely trying their best to overcome it, especially Kasey Alfonso who gave her character Norma some satisfying nuances and a great sassy personality that made her standout even though it was a small role.


Callie Johnson as Carrie (center) and the cast of CARRIE: The Musical


The opening number of Carrie entitled “In” was one of the best numbers in this production, even though it was riddled with horrendous lyrics like “In is it! What comes close to that? Until you’ve been in, you ain’t where it’s at”. There are several reasons why this number worked so well at the top of the show. For starters it sets up the inside status amongst the teens and lets us know where their priorities lay off the bat. Secondly, the energy of the cast in this song was infectious and a great way to start the show. But the biggest reason it works so well is due to Brigitte Ditmars’ outstanding choreography which effectively amplified the teenage angst without making it look like Spring Awakening. And it wasn’t just the opening that was perfectly staged by Ditmars; her fantastic choreography was uniformly excellent throughout this production and one of its biggest assets.


Director Michael Driscoll also did an amicable job of making the majority of Carrie entertaining in spite of its enormous flaws. All the high school scenes seemed to flow nicely and had great energy, but the mother-daughter scenes seemed to drag to no end. This is partly because Ms. Condit didn’t raise the stakes enough for her scenes to be interesting and also partly because those same scenes contain the most slow-moving ballads that drag the story down rather than energizing it.


The set design by Stephen Carmody which consistis of cluttered grey barbed-wire lockers strewn all about and dangling above the stage was appropriate for the musical and gave it a confined high school prison-like look without overdoing it. The only thing that could have been better is if there was an actual closet or cellar door for Margaret to forcibly drag Carrie into during the “And Eve Was Weak” song. That claustrophobic sense of being closed-in and shut off was sorely missed by not having a real physically enclosed space for her to be tossed into. Having the mom slowly drag Carrie stage left next to some additional lockers just doesn’t have the same terrifying effect.


Callie Johnson as Carrie White


The climatic bloody prom scene that is so culturally iconic about Carrie was absolutely remarkable given the budget and size of the theatre space. An enormous amount of credit needs to be given to Gravity & Momentum which assisted with the special effects and blood, to lighting designer Charles Cooper, and to technical director Christopher Kristant for making this climax so visually impressive. I can only imagine how tedious the tech rehearsals for this must have been with set pieces falling, various lights flashing, smoke billowing out, and nearly the entire cast on stage all at once. However all the hard work clearly paid off. The effects are executed very well, but not so much that they overshadow the moment’s tragic emotional significance. This production really struck the perfect balance. On top of all the effects Ms. Johnson handles the prom’s bloody climax magnificently. It’s hard not to get a little choked up watching her reaction from getting drenched in pig’s blood. In fact it's the the only time in this entire production that we get to feel anything even remotely real for one of the characters. That is quite an accomplishment considering how glaringly dreadful this show's textual problems are. Ms. Callie Johnson's impressive performance is the main reason to see this musical, if not the only reason.


Bottom Line: Carrie: The Musical is somewhat recommended. Just like Bailiwick’s previous musical, Dessa Rose, a majority of the problems in Carrie are also beyond anything that this theatre company is responsible for. The only thing I really question is choosing to do this show in the first place (especially when it was initially announced that they had chosen the wonderful musical Applause to close out the season instead). Nonetheless Bailiwick Chicago remains a phenomenal off-Loop theatre company that still does some of the most of professional musical theatre in the city. However this season they haven’t necessarily produced shows with the greatest material. I wish the company would pick its future musicals based more on real substance and less on how good a cast recording sounds. If I’m sounding harsh it’s only because I strongly believe that Bailiwick Chicago is better than the shows it’s been choosing to produce. It deserves richer pieces of work than Carrie: The Musical. Let’s not forget that constantly choosing bad material was one of the biggest reasons the former Bailiwick Repertory couldn’t find an audience and shut down back in 2009.


On a final note can someone please fix the A/C problem in the theatre? I think everyone in the house and on stage would agree that it was sweltering on opening night.


Carrie: The Musical – Bailiwick Chicago

Running Time: 2 Hours, including a 15 minute intermission

Runs through: July 12, 2014

Curtain Times: Thursday, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 2 PM

Tickets and Reservations: $15 - $40 and can be purchased online (see link above), in-person the day of the show, or by calling the Victory Gardens Box Office at (773) 871-3000

Discounted Group Tickets: $30 per ticket for groups of 10 or more. Inquire with box office for details.

Music by Michael Gore, Lyrics by Dean Pitchford, Book by Lawrence D. Cohen Directed by Michael Driscoll, Music Direction by Aaron Benham, Choreography by Brigitte Ditmars

Stage Management by Heather Stuck, Assistant Stage Management by Megan Kowalsky, Set Design by Stephen H. Carmondy, Technical Design by Christopher Kristant, Blood and Special Effects by Gravity & Momentum,Costume Design by Raquel Adorno, Lighting Design by Charles Cooper, Sound Design by Patrick Bley, Assistant Choreography by Jon Martinez

Cast includes
: Kasey Alfonso (Norma),  Molly Coleman (Frieda), Katherine L. Condit (Margaret White), Samantha Dubina (Chris, Carrie u/s), Kate Garassino (Ms. Gardner), Damon J. Gillespie (Freddy), Callie Johnson (Carrie White), Ryan Lanning (Mr. Stephens/Reverend Bliss), Kelly Anne Krauter (Helen), Henry McGinniss (Tommy), Conner Meinhart (George), Sawyer Smith (Billy), Rochelle Therrien (Sue), George Toles (Toles), Jon Martinez (Male Swing)

Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow


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