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Playful, intimate, humane horror

Katerina Sakkas: Squabbalogic's Carrie the Musical

Hilary Cole and company, Carrie the Musical Hilary Cole and company, Carrie the Musical
photo courtesy Squabbalogic
Opening last year at Sydney’s Reginald Theatre on a fittingly threatening night, the Australian premiere of Carrie the Musical emphasised humanity over horror spectacle.

Adapted from Stephen King’s seminal first novel about a teenage outcast with psychokinetic abilities, the musical began its life as an ostentatious Broadway flop in 1988. It has since been revised by original composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford and writer Lawrence D Cohen into a more intimate production which enjoyed a successful 2012 off-Broadway run before being realised for Australian audiences by Sydney independent music theatre company Squabbalogic.

Though taking a few wardrobe cues from Brian de Palma’s emblematic film version, Carrie the Musical is closer in tone to King’s novel, where the supernatural is undeniably present, but the main themes are repression, adolescent angst and cruelty. As befits the medium, this musical production has more light-hearted moments than both book and film, while retaining the story’s dark underpinnings. Thematically, as well as in its wise-cracking repartée and 50s-inflected song and dance numbers, this Carrie occupies the same essential territory as Hairspray and Grease, other narratives of teen outsiders striving to achieve romantic and social success on their own terms. With its small cast and orchestra tucked into the cosy confines of the Reginald, the intimate scale of Squabbalogic’s production was essential in making the audience feel an active part of this affecting performance.

The darkened set was a striking foil for Carrie’s romantic soaring ballads and the bright, often comedic group numbers. A derelict assemblage of charred chairs, wooden scaffolding and tattered fabric surrounding the semi-circular stage served to signify not only the heroine’s ultimate destructive act, but also represented the sackcloth and ashes ambience of Carrie’s home as well as the underlying rottenness of the school hierarchy.

The show begins with an interrogation. Isolated by a spotlight, wholesome Sue Snell has questions fired at her out of the darkness about the events of the fateful prom night of which she is the sole survivor. This scene will recur, forming a simple dramatic framing device for the flashbacks relating Carrie’s coming-of-age. Harnessing a powerful, clear voice to a fragile physicality, Hilary Cole brings a great deal of sympathetic intensity to the title role. As her nemesis, arrogant rich kid Chris Hargensen, Prudence Holloway injects the production’s one true note of evil, while Adèle Parkinson and Rob Johnson are likeable but not cloying as Sue and Tommy—the popular couple with a conscience.

It was somewhat disappointing to see Carrie’s relationship with her mother (Margi de Ferranti) considerably softened here. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid panto-style evil, Mama is a more sympathetic character than the sadistic religious fanatic in book and film, but this tends to diminish a key element in Carrie’s struggle. One of the film’s most effective moments is of course when Carrie stands crowned as prom queen, radiant with newly discovered beauty and social success—just before the spectacular drenching in pig’s blood. This scene will hang over any reworking of Carrie. The moment seemed rather rushed in this production, though its aftermath was visually arresting: Carrie’s devastating fury accentuated by livid red light and strobe flashes.

This tale of humiliation, paranormal ability, crushed hopes and mass murder would appear a challenging one to bring to the musical stage, yet director Jay James-Moody’s production had a surprising playfulness while never trivialising its central character’s very personal experience. It was great fun.

Squabbalogic, Carrie the Musical, director Jay James-Moody, composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford, writer Lawrence D Cohen, scenic designer Sean Minahan, lighting Mikey Rice, musical director Mark Chamberlain, choreographer Shondelle Pratt; Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, 13-30 Nov 2013

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 47

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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