Josephine Pellow and Margo Mikkelson in “Carrie: The Musical” (photo by Vivian Nazzaro)
Frenetic pacing and technical challenges hampered Faust Theatre’s “Carrie: the Musical” on opening night—but a campy staging and talented cast and crew kept the show fun.
When “Carrie: The Musical” first premiered on Broadway in 1988, it was a flop. The show, based on the 1974 Stephen King novel, quickly earned the ire of critics for its broad characterization and broader lyrics. (Admittedly, lyricist Dean Pitchford penned a few real clunkers, like rhyming “ew, Sue” with “boo hoo”).
Faust Theatre’s production, playing this month at The Arts Asylum, includes some new songs from the musical’s 2012 Off-Broadway revival, but those additions haven’t fundamentally changed the tone. The high school characters in “Carrie” are still stereotypes who behave in predictable ways—and that’s fine.
Staging “Carrie” as a serious, psychological study in 2021—when just about everyone knows the story of the telekinetic teenager and her blood-soaked end—would be a bore. Instead, director Zach Faust leans into the show’s goofier, melodramatic elements in a production that has more “Rocky Horror Picture Show” in its DNA than “The Shining.”
That starts with the show’s pacing and choreography, which ranges from boisterous to busy. Choreographers Emmy Hadley and Jackson Tomlin pack tight, athletic clusters of movement into each song, and the actors keep them crisp—even when the vocals take a hit. The blocking is similarly caffeinated, with actors chasing each other around the stage in unmotivated loops. At times, I expected to hear “Yakety Sax.”
Faust is a talented and detail-oriented director; my main criticism is that I’d like him to direct about 20 percent less. This “Carrie” seems gripped by a fear that the audience will tune out if they ever have only one thing to pay attention to at a time. Several flashback scenes have been filmed rather than staged, a choice that keeps scene changes brisk but also muddies the action with too many competing design elements. On Thursday night, those video scenes often interrupted or played behind a live scene in progress, with recorded audio just loud enough to pull the audience out of the present action but not loud enough to be intelligible.
Sound levels were a persistent problem at that performance: Josephine Pellow, who plays the show’s anti-heroine, Carrie White, tried her best to project through her first solo number (“Carrie”), but her mic was either quiet or off—what I could hear sounded great, but I couldn’t hear much. The sound improved somewhat after intermission, suggesting those issues will get ironed out during the run.
Faust has a knack for drawing committed performances out of young casts, and “Carrie: The Musical” is no exception. Pellow masters both the timorous physicality and emotional growth of Carrie, a sheltered high school girl who slowly learns how to wield power (in more ways than one). Mia Valentine brings an impressive belt and comedic mugging to Chris Hargensen, a rich, popular girl who bullies Carrie viciously. And Charlie Meachem plays Chris’s oafish boyfriend, Billy Nolan, like an evil Golden Retriever—which is exactly what the baldly written part needs.
Maggie Bunch (as Carrie’s high school ally, Sue Snell) and Maddox Bane (as prom date Tommy Ross) make strong impressions as the play’s softer-hearted ingenues. Despite cheesy lyrics, their duet, “You Shine,” is one of the production’s highlights—partly due to Bunch‘s and Bane’s expressive vocal performances, and partly because they spend the entire song sitting down. After an hour of buckshot blocking and design, the down-tempo song felt revolutionary. (Music director Delano Mendoza deserves credit here as well: amplification issues aside, the vocal performances in “Carrie” are solid across the board, and the full-cast numbers are crisp and in sync.)
In a cast of strong vocalists, Margo Mikkelson stands out as Margaret White, Carrie’s abusive, hyper-religious mother. Mikkelson’s performance walks a knife’s edge, teetering between moments of authentic vulnerability and the rafter-shaking speeches of a cartoon villain. This is not a criticism: that balancing act is the production’s calling card.
The show’s famous climax is staged in cheesy slow motion, but Faust adds a coda that reminds us this “Carrie” is meant to be fun. Even with some technical and pacing issues, the production is worth seeing for an example of a younger company making an artistic splash with far fewer resources than the city’s legacy houses. Faust Theatre has a promising future. But it has a pretty bright present, too.
“Carrie: The Musical,” a production of Faust Theatre, runs at The Arts Asylum through October 23. For more information, visit fausttheatre.org