‘Carrie’ is scary, fun, and intimate

By on October 10, 2018

The cast of Open Stage’s “Carrie: The Musical” includes (left to right) Brad Barkdoll, Maggie Haynes, Ian Wallace, Vanessa Marie Hofer, and Kayla Brooks. (Photo by Haley Harned)

Something is not right at the Open Stage of Harrisburg. A warning posted on the entrance to the theatre space at 25 N. Court St. reads “Please ignore the alarms and the screaming from inside the theatre.” By the end of the second act of the current production blood is splattered about the stage and covers most of the cast, including Kayla Brooks of Lititz.

Brooks is Carrie White in “Carrie: The Musical,” a stage adaptation of the novel by master of horror Stephen King. Based on King’s 1974 best-seller, “Carrie,” the two-act musical documents the high school life of a socially awkward teen raised by an overbearing, God-fearing, single mother (Rachel Landon). Mentally and physically abused at home, Carrie finds no solace among her high school peers who make her the subject of ridicule. When the bullying goes too far, classmate Sue Snell (Vanessa Marie Hofer) feels genuine remorse, but it is too late as the school bad-girl, Chris Hargensen (Maggie Haynes), is punished and suspended for her actions against Carrie. Chris’ plans for prom are destroyed; she sets out for revenge and enlists her boyfriend, Billy Nolan (Brad Barkdoll), in a demented plot to ruin Carrie’s prom night.

Carrie is only going to prom after Sue convinces her steady beau, Tommy Ross (Ian Wallace), to take the social outcast to the big dance to try and right the wrongs of the entire school — consisting of Norma (Erin Shellenberger), Frieda (Amanda Adams), Helen (Elena Rossetto), Freddy (Benny Benamati), Stokes (Israel Orengo), and George (Shakeil Kanish). During the tale we meet the high school principal, Mr. Stephens (Chris Gibson), who serves as a bit of comedic relief, and Miss Gardner (Alexis Dow Campbell), the school’s P.E., teacher who attempts to take Carrie under her wing.

All the while, Carrie has discovered she has a unique ability. She can move and create things — like fire — with her mind. Her first “victim” is her mother, but when the bucket (of animal blood) drops, the entire town of Chamberlain, Maine suffers. In the wake of Carrie’s violence and revenge, the death toll rises and we learn only Sue survives to relive the nightmare caused by the bullying of what seemed to be a harmless young woman.

When I first saw a production of “Carrie: The Musical” at another theatre, I had a hard time taking the show seriously. Believing the story lies somewhere between tragedy and farce I equated the Lawrence D. Cohen written work as the “High School Musical”-like offspring of “Grease” and “Phantom of the Opera.” The original Broadway run of the show in 1988 lasted only five performances and was met with scathing reviews, but later revivals (2012 off-Broadway, 2015 London’s West End, and 2015 Los Angeles) weathered the critics’ storm better, but not without piercing rebuffs of one sort or another. Horror fans should be prewarned: “Carrie” is a musical first and a horror story second.

Kay;la Brooks as Carrie. (Phot0 by Haley Harned)

To those fans, songs like “The World According to Chris” and “A Night We’ll Never Forget” may seem misplaced. In Act I the tense nature of the drama is set with musical numbers like “Eve Was Weak” and true remorse is felt in Hofer’s “Once You See.” Opening Act II, “A Night We’ll Never Forget,” which best describes Open Stage’s production of “Carrie: The Musical,” is a strong, well-choregraphed, and expertly executed number. Landon’s talent and ability is highlighted by “When There’s No One,” a lament of failure and horrific misguidance. All of these songs help to move the story.

Brooks’ Carrie is horrifying and gentle, a complete embodiment of the character created by King and made famous by Sissy Spacek in the 1976 film adaptation of the horror story. Unlike Spacek, Brooks is tasked with singing throughout the performance. During a packed house on opening night, Brooks’ voice never wavered as she provided insight into her character and her trials through song. Carrie is vulnerable and perceived as weak, yet inside her is a strength of unimaginable power; Brooks’ confidence on the stage allows the viewer to believe in Carrie, no matter what bloody outcome may prevail.

One of the biggest talents in this show spent most of the time in the background. Ensemble member Kanish is an absolute star! His witty portrayal of George was a highlight of this production. After a few quips and charismatic postures early in the show I kept my eyes glued to the Harrisburg actor waiting for his next, brief moment in the limelight. Kanish embraced a small part making it greater than what it was meant to be without overshadowing the performances of other, more important characters.

Overall, “Carrie” is a perfect show for this venue. The compact nature of the arena creates an eerie intimacy as theatregoers are nearly engulfed in the action taking place before them. The small setting gives “Carrie: The Musical” a validity it lacks on a larger stage. Yes, the audience is expected to suspend disbelief when traveling from a gym locker room to Carrie’s home with the same backdrop, but the price paid for lack of physical scene change is far outweighed by the familiarity gained by being close enough to touch the performers onstage, feel their anguish, and cringe from their misguided actions so close to us all in corporeal space and human nature.

Just in time for the haunting month of October, Open Stage of Harrisburg’s “Carrie: The Musical” opened Saturday, Sept. 29 and runs through Oct. 26. The show kicked off season 33 for Open Stage; their five-show 2018-19 season carries the theme of “coming of age” and includes a new production entitled “The Kids You Read About in Textbooks” and ends with “Ragtime” in spring 2019.

More information on the venue, the show, and tickets can be found at openstagehbg.com/carrie.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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