Not-Quite Scary White – The Highs and Lows of Carrie: The Musical @ MainLine

“Doesn’t anybody ever get it right?”

It’s a question the betrayed and broken-hearted Carrie White has been asking since 1988. And audiences have been right there with her.

Stephen King’s classic horror story about a tortured telekinetic teen made for a thrilling novel in ’74 and a chilling, Academy Award-nominated film in ‘76, but few believed it could succeed as a musical when Lawrence D. Cohen – who’d written the screenplay for De Palma’s movie – teamed up with FAME composer and lyricist Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford to try and tell the story through song. Carrie: The Musical was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in February ‘88 and landed on Broadway that April with a thud.

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic eviscerated the piece for its over-the-top theatrics, spastic Debbie Allen choreography, inexplicably Greek toga-themed costumes, weak special effects and incompetent storytelling. It closed in New York after 16 previews and five performances, losing 8 million dollars and earning the reputation of the flop to end all flops.

Nevertheless, elements of the score captured the hearts of musical theatre fans, who circulated bootleg recordings in the hopes that Carrie could somehow rise again. Those grassroots efforts compelled the creative team to revisit their wayward child in 2012, when they retooled the piece into something less outrageous and more true to the spirit of the book. That Off-Broadway incarnation rehabilitated Carrie’s reputation somewhat and even inspired the CW’s Riverdale to theme an episode of their show around the musical.

Now, the revised Carrie has made its way to Mainline Theatre thanks to the efforts of In The Wings Promotions, who must be credited for not only bringing this rarely-produced misfit of a show to Montreal audiences for the first time, but also for assembling a compelling cast of local talent.

Mary-Francis Kobelt steps into the challenging title role with charm and vulnerability. Though she begins as a quiet, hunched figure on the outskirts, her passionate vocals hint at the hopeful spirit trapped inside the body of a girl tormented by classmates and abused at home.

In the wrong hands, Carrie can come across as a cloying, one-note victim, but Kobelt takes care to make her portrayal a nuanced one, so you can root for her as she builds up her confidence and starts letting her guard down. Hers is a Carrie you half expect will make it through the prom unscathed.

It helps that she has the support of such an affable escort. As Tommy Ross, Jonathan Vanderzon brings an easygoing nature and sweet, clear voice to the often thankless role.

If it never quite made sense that a popular High School guy would agree to take an outcast to prom at the behest of his girlfriend, Vanderzon somehow connects those dots, effortlessly embodying that rarest of creatures: a genuinely nice guy without an ounce of ego or insincerity. The Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville native has clearly made good use of his training in the Big Apple and seems destined for great things.

Tommy Ross (Jonathan Vanderzon) and Sue Snell (Maya Lewis)

Similarly, Maya Lewis floats through each of her songs as the aforementioned Sue Snell, whose attempts to help Carrie ultimately end up backfiring. By the time she and Vanderzon sing the act two duet You Shine, they’ve all but walked away with the show.

Maria Del Real puts up a good fight, however, as the spunky and lovable Miss Gardner, who does double-duty as gym teacher and therapist to insecure Carrie. Though the revised version of Carrie still insists on having Gardner fill Carrie’s head with far-fetched fantasies of finding true love, Real mines Unsuspecting Hearts for humor, winning over both her doubtful student and the crowd with her can-do attitude and pleasant Mexican accent. If Carrie has typically been light on laughs, this cast at least knows where to find them.

It’s the thrills and chills that seem to be noticeably absent. Much of the fear factor in the original came from Tony Award winner Betty Buckley’s terrifying portrayal of a religious parent gone berserk. One could easily argue that her legendary, no-holds-barred interpretation of Margaret White is what kept the show from being completely dismissed and forgotten altogether.

Producer and costar Noelle Hannibal approaches the plum role of Margaret with noticeable hesitation, denying Carrie the tormentor it needs to justify its heroine’s emotional scars. There is no vocal belting or physical beating, and the show is weaker for it.

Aly Slominski throws herself more willingly into the role of mean girl Chris, with Dylan Stanley along for the ride as bad boy Billy, and though the two have fun, they simply don’t have as many opportunities as Margaret to give the show its edge.

Margaret White (Noelle Hannibal)

Musical director Ian Baird and his merry band of musicians (Gregory Kustka, Kevin Bourne and Colin Gé Pigeon Edwards) nearly compensate, delivering on the creepy, rock-inspired score with precision and gusto. Unfortunately, Carrie’s powers seem to have triggered a plethora of technical problems behind-the-scenes for Bruce Lambie’s sound design on opening night.

Microphones frequently crackled, popped and cut out randomly. For a space as intimate as Mainline, one would think it would suffice to do away with malfunctioning mikes altogether, especially since the cast is apparently able to sing out even while wearing face masks, as is presently required.

They cannot, however, be heard over the obnoxiously loud audio clips which punctuate the show with unwelcomed frequency. Simply put, some adjustments need to be made.

The staging, meanwhile, resembles more what you’d expect to see in a rehearsal space than an actual production. Black curtains and boxes are used to suggest Carrie’s home and the schoolgrounds, with precious few props handy to bring those environments to life. The presentation suffers as a result.

In And Eve Was Weak, for instance, Carrie’s mother is supposed to violently lock her daughter up, either in a basement prison, as seen in the Broadway show, or a closet, as depicted in the film. Here, Carrie is simply ushered to the back of the stage and left to kneel, as an ambiguous sound effect vaguely suggests the locking of a door. Audience members unfamiliar with this plot point were left puzzled.

Later, Carrie is supposed to dramatically reveal her powers to her mother by willing windows to slam shut during a thunderstorm. It would be a simple enough effect to pull off, but having provided no windows, set designer You Chen Zhang and director Nadia Verrucci leave their star to simply nod towards the audience as more sounds blast through the speakers, attempting to compensate for what should be happening in the theatre.

Two practical effects are employed early on to illustrate Carrie gaining control over her powers and they work rather well, but once we get to the prom scene – the scene that for many is the sole reason to watch any adaptation of Carrie – the creative team seems to simply throw in the towel. Astonishingly, lighting designer Alexander Smith opts to employ black lights during Carrie’s climactic meltdown in lieu of, say, red lights. Or better yet, plain old stage blood.

For a smaller scale production to cut corners is understandable. To deny Carrie audiences a blood-soaked finale is not, especially after the Broadway original and subsequent revivals were heavily criticized for the very same thing. Blood is very much at the center of the story being told, so even when working within the tightest of budgets, it’s worth prioritizing.

Having said that, one can’t help but hope Carrie will work out some of these kinks in the coming performances, because – thanks to its brave cast – there’s a real pulse behind this production that deserves to be celebrated. After two years of lockdowns, we’ve had precious little live theatre to enjoy, least of all unconventional theatre.

So even with its tragic elements, Carrie remains a curiously uplifting experience. Good or bad, right or wrong, love it or hate it – it definitely makes for a night you’ll never forget.

For tickets, please visit the MainLine Theatre website. Carrie runs through May 14th. For more information on the history of Carrie: The Musical, listen to the Out For Blood podcast, which chronicles the show’s fascinating development through interviews with its creative team and fans worldwide.

Images courtesy of In the Wings Promotions

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