Columbus Immersive Theater Brings Stephen King’s ‘Carrie’ to Riveting Life
In 1974, Stephen King’s best-selling debut novel Carrie set the tone for his character-driven, gut-wrenching horror and cemented itself as a pop culture phenomenon with the Brian De Palma film adaptation two years later. When I read Carrie as an adolescent, over a decade later, it kept every ounce of its ability to shock and, in a way I wasn’t familiar with horror novels doing yet, to shock me into empathy for the tragic figures at its core.
Carrie’s fraught journey to the stage is a different legend and a rare example of a true second chance in the high-stakes theatrical world. A disastrous bomb in its Broadway premiere in 1988 (a few years later, Ken Mandelbaum wrote a history titled Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops), in 2012 an inspired director (Stafford Arima) reworked the show with the original creative team – book writer Lawrence D. Cohen, who also wrote the 1976 film, music writer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford – into an acclaimed Off-Broadway hit.
I’d never seen either version, and, after seeing Columbus Immersive Theater’s remarkable production at the Garden, directed by Edward Carignan, it’s hard to imagine a more definitive musical take on this heart-ripping material.
The King novel uses the epistolary form to create an uncanny distance between the reader and the action, a filter on what happened as we root through the wreckage, and Cohen’s book uses a light framing sequence with Sue Snell (Lucy Breedlove) being interrogated by police in the aftermath to create some of that effect.
Breedlove’s Snell and Tru Stites as her counterpart Tommy Ross, make the most out of the least flashy characters, the two popular kids trying to get out of high school with their souls intact and their warmth, humanity, and chemistry with one another helps Breedlove’s line “We were just kids doing our best” hit as one of the saddest moments in Carrie.
The corrosive, self-fulfilling-prophecy nature of an unshakable belief that the world is a nasty, brutish, zero sum game that only rewards its takers, is a theme that gets refracted through several of the characters.
Madelyn Lego’s Chris Hargensen and Aaron Natarelli’s Billy Nolan are a delightfully sleazy pair, with an electric who’s-using-who dynamic. There’s pure delight in moments including when Natarelli lets on how consciously the character plays his role as a patsy in Hargensen’s schemes a few moments where Lego’s character hints at an existential terror that doesn’t ameliorate the pain she’s going to cause but shades it.
The other side – or the dead end – of that cynicism comes in the guise of Carrie’s mother, Margaret White (Linda Roth). Roth gives a virtuosic, blood-chilling performance as someone so desperate to save her daughter from her own mistakes she damns them both.
Roth handles the quicksilver moods of her character with total assurance and clarity. She slides from the laser-focused hate of “And Eve Was Weak” into the gentler, hobbled attempts at empathy and tenderness of “Unsuspecting Hearts” and the devastating duet with Carrie (Eli Brickey) on the act one closer “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance” is a Macbeth-level tumble into an abyss of her own making.
With subtle facial expressions, Roth lets us in on the character’s awareness of how bad things have gotten, and her own part in it, along with her inability to turn the ship around.
Eli Brickey’s astonishing portrayal of the eponymous Carrie is worth the ticket price alone. She captures the character’s inherent sweetness without sugarcoating the off-putting, uncomfortable burden that naivete places on other kids who are trying to figure themselves out.
With a story the main plot points of have long since moved into common parlance, Brickey manages to – even for some fleeting moments – make us think it might end differently, that Carrie might get a way into the society she’s terrified of and hungry for.
A smart decision in the material – and used brilliantly by Carignan – sets up Carrie’s voice as always set against someone else for most of the show, a character in her own world, not being heard but also not getting the space to belt out her version of the facts without interruption.
These showcases for Brickey and the rest of the cast’s harmonic acuity underline how marginalized the character is and rope-a-dope us for her blistering, wall-shaking declaration of self on “The Destruction” where she forces the ensemble – the school, Carrie’s peers – into punctuating and fitting in the cracks around her.
The other major theme of King’s – how easily our capacity for cruelty and bullying rises in a crowd, how disdainful many of us are of the weakness in others we’re trying to hide in ourselves – comes out most clearly in Dionysia Williams’ choreography (with assistant choreographer Hunter Minor).
Williams uses an ensemble of fantastic dancers to hint at the inherent awkwardness of teenagers and simultaneously set up the animalistic, tribal nature of them in groups. Her use of percussive stomping and menacing lurching toward the audience is a crucial component of Carrie’s sense of pervasive dread.
Eli Suarez’s marvelous lighting crucially slices time, shifting the pacing and focusing our attention in the heat of the controlled chaos on stage, almost evoking a cinematic jump scare without sacrificing the psychological reality. His contributions have even more of an impact as Carignan’s production eschews the usually lavish set for bare-bones black with high windows that emphasizes the way small town high schools feel like prisons.
That decision amps up the claustrophobia and provides a backdrop for some stunning old-school stage magic – Joe Tyson as Special FX Coordinator, Isaac Steinhour as technical director, and Luke Bovenizer as Stage Manager and Assistant Director – in the second act when everything goes wrong for the characters.
Carignan, Williams, and the cast never lose sight of the deep sadness at the heart of Carrie and the lesson that we can all be monsters with less of a nudge than we want to admit. And they make that uncomfortable identification into a riotous, quick-witted, wild carnival ride of an entertainment. It’s an alternately sticky-hot and brilliantly cold look at humanity perfect for the depths of summer.
Carrie runs through August 8 at the Garden Theater with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit columbusimmersive.com.