The musical version of Carrie, no longer a legendary flop, makes a timely debut in Austin
One of the most unsettling musicals in theatre history is the original Broadway version of Carrie, but not because it was based on the first published novel of horror and suspense author Stephen King. Although the content was frightening, the direction of the show's 1988 New York premiere was bewilderingly uneven: Some scenes were touching and well-performed, but it had numerous flaws, including an abstract design concept, outlandish special effects, and a misguided number about killing a pig. As a result, the production, which ran for only four days after it opened, gained almost legendary flop status. But as befits a show with supernatural elements, Carrie the musical wouldn't die. The show was repeatedly reworked over the years, and a major overhaul resulted in a 2012 off-Broadway staging that was received much more positively than its premiere. Fortunately for theatregoers in the Texas state capital, Austin Theatre Project is presenting this gripping – if still challenging – new incarnation, the play's local debut. (A production by Woodlawn Theatre in San Antonio began performances last week.)
"When I heard the new version, I was just blown away by the way the music had been completely reworked, and I liked the sound, I liked the feel, I liked all the new songs," explains ATP Artistic Director David Blackburn, who serves as the show's music director. The score that attracted Blackburn has lyrics by Dean Pitchford and music by Michael Gore, who together won an Oscar for the theme song to the movie Fame (the stage musical adaptation of which will be produced later this season by the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance). ATP Executive Director Barbara Schuler saw the revised iteration in New York and was so excited about the piece that she and Blackburn decided to mount it as soon as the rights were released. In Not Since Carrie, a chronicle of Broadway flops, journalist and theatre historian Ken Mandelbaum wrote of the 1988 musical, "Half of it is thuggish camp, half of it is gorgeous music theatre." Camp isn't part of this vision for Carrie; rather, ATP is finding great resonance with issues facing society today. The title character, a high school student in a small New England town, exacts revenge on her community in response to her classmates' constant ridicule. "It's the kind of thing you hear all the time, with all the incidents that are going on in schools all over the country," observes Blackburn. "Usually the perpetrator has been a victim of bullying and teasing," he says, positing that this connection makes the piece unfortunately timely.
King set his 1974 novel in 1979, and the stage adaptation takes the story still further into the future, setting it in the present. Blackburn notes that the production feels especially current: "We have incredible [actors] who have really taken the characters and brought them into modern times." He adds that the performers create this immediacy in part through acting choices that the script doesn't necessarily indicate. "There's one character who's constantly on her cell phone, taking selfies, posting them on Instagram."
What accounts for this particularly contemporary flair? Blackburn credits director Jeff Hinkle, who is staging his third ATP show, after Falsettos (2013) and Corpus Christi (2012, the theatre's inaugural production). Hinkle, says Blackburn, brings out the actors' creativity by allowing them the freedom to make discoveries about their characters. But he also has a knack for building a unified ensemble, Blackburn suggests, a task no doubt made easier here by the presence of other artists who, like Hinkle, are returning to ATP: Rachel Hoovler (National Pastime, Avenue Q), Amanda Serra (Godspell), and Wendy Jo Cox (Godspell, National Pastime, Baby).
One newcomer is Audrey Johnson, who couldn't be more excited about performing the eponymous role of the young woman with telekinetic powers. Originally from Pflugerville, Johnson moved to New York City and now lives in Nashville, but she came back for this opportunity. She knew Blackburn and Schuler before they founded ATP, and when she learned that they were producing Carrie, she jumped at the chance to play this part. "Carrie goes through such an emotional journey. That's hard to find in musical theatre," Johnson comments. "There's not a lot of musicals out there that are really gritty." Before being cast, she hadn't read the book or seen any of the movie versions. During the rehearsal process, Johnson did watch the well-known 1976 film – whose screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen, also penned the musical's libretto – but only after poring over the novel first. King's prose unlocked key details of her character, offers the actor. For instance, "There are a couple lines that I was doing aggressively or angrily," she says, "but in the way he actually wrote it, she's doing it internally or submissively." Preparing for this role has been rewarding, Johnson says, and the experience has pushed her as a performer. "It is by far the biggest challenge I have had as an actor, and I am so grateful to have been trusted with this opportunity."
Carrie runs through Nov. 9, Thursday-Sunday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 3pm, at the Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd. For more information, visit www.austintheatreproject.org.