What Does It Cost To Be Kind?

Carrie The Musical (La Mirada)userpic=theatre_ticketsI was going to title this post “Oh, The Horror”, but the title I chose (from a line in the closing song, “Epilogue”) really fits the point of this show, and its evolution, much much better. Oh, right. Start at the beginning. What do I know about that night at the gymnasium…

Mention the name “Carrie” to a Cybersecurity Specialist, and they probably think of Carrie Gates, a past-conference chair at ACSAC. But mention “Carrie” to most people, and they think of the 1976 Brian DePalma film version of 1974 Stephen King novel, starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Mention “Carrie” to a theatre person, however, and they think of one of the most notorious flops in history: the 1988 Broadway production of “Carrie: The Musical”. There were many reasons it flopped: primarily, the cost; secondarily, the execution was overblown and over-stylized; thirdly, the audience came expecting to be scared, but the horror they got was something else entirely. But the show did receive standing ovations, and certainly stuck in the memory. I think there was an additional reason for the failure: society wasn’t ready for it, just as they weren’t ready for the cynicism of Chicago: The Musical in the mid-1970s, or they wouldn’t have been receptive to many gay-themed musicals in the 1950s.

But it is the 21st century. A major notion in the news is the outsider on campus, the ostracized person for whom a history of bullying and exclusion has led to a horrific revenge. School shootings are in the news. Cyberbullying. We’ve learned to clamp down hard on bullying and bullys and harassment. Look no further than a recent post I shared on Facebook about a boy who snapped a girl’s bra strap, and got called on his sexual harassment. Over 350 shares. This has impacted the story of Carrie White — it is no longer a horror story. Other than the telekenesis, it is far too common of a story. We’ve become inured to the horror of the aftereffects of bullying — and Carrie is viewed in a new light. It is a story about the impact of bullying, and the closing question “I could say, “Thank God that’s not me” / But what does it cost to be kind? obtains a new meaning. What does it cost to be kind? What is the real cost of bullying?

This change of view led to a revival of Carrie. In 2010, the original composers of Carrie Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford (FB) (the folks behind Fame) — and the book author — Lawrence D. Cohen — reworked the story and the songs, and in 2012, a reworked version of Carrie ran for one month off Broadway to much better reviews. This led to the version of Carrie I saw on stage last night (which, I must make clear, was the 2nd preview — official opening is next week). Director Brady Schwind, who had done excellent work at the Neighborhood Playhouse (where we saw great productions of both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Parade) envisioned an “immersive” production of Carrie. He worked with Transfer and with the La Mirada Theatre. What does “immersive” mean? None of the regular La Mirada seating was used. None. The audience was sat on stage in high school ish bleachers, and those in the lower bleachers had them moved to follow the cast. All action was on stage, which was decked out as the high school gym, with additional space obtained by extending the stage over the first few rows of the normal audience seating. This cut the seating to 230 people, broken down (yes) into Senior, Junior, Sophmore, and Freshman classes (based on seating).

There may be those of you out there unfamiliar with the story of Carrie. Carrie White is a 17 year old high school senior in Maine who has never fit in. Her mom is a fundamentalist Christian, and Carrie and her mother live alone. When Carrie has her first period during the showers in gym, the rest of the girls tease and taunt her. In her angry response, Carrie discovers burgeoning telekenetic powers. As the teasing continues, the powers develop. One girl, Sue, starts to tire of the taunting and starts to make overtures of friendship… but it rebuffed. The gym coach also tries to make up for the incident, and asks all the girls to apologize. The leader of the bullies, Chris, refuses … and is denied the ability to go to prom. She vows revenge. Meanwhile, to make things up to Carrie, Sue asks her boyfriend Tommy to ask Carrie to the prom. He does, and Carrie starts to see herself as normal. She surprises everyone with her beauty at the prom, but Chris gets her revenge by having Carrie and Tommy elected prom queen and king. During the ceremony, she dumps pig blood on Carrie… and the carnage begins. Carrie traps the students, kills them in gory ways, sets the school on fire. She returns home to the comfort of her mother…. who stabs her. In return, Carrie kills her mother. Only Sue is left.

Doesn’t this sound like a Shakespearean tragedy. Is Titus Andronicus any worse? The Shakespearean approach was the approach taken for the original production — and it failed. Turned into a realistic approach (as was done in 2012 and this production) the focus was clearly bullying. You could see the audience during the show seeing themselves in Carrie White, and understanding her desire for revenge on the bullies. We have all felt it. We have all been there. [and we all need to remember that and stop it — Operation Respect is a great place to start]

The changes in society and our willingness to see bullying — and, as the show sings, “And now I know, that once you see you can’t unsee” — combined with the rework on the show have turned Carrie: The Musical around. The story now resonates, and the music that wasn’t accepted in the 1990s works now. You walk out touched by the story and humming the melodies. The story and the music are Broadway-quality; but story requires intimacy to make its impact. A flop no more.

Let’s turn to the immersive staging. Does it work? Again I’ll note that I was at the 2nd preview — there are still kinks that need to be worked out, and they may be corrected before opening. Luckily, I think the kinks are all technical. First and foremost is the sound. The stage is not tuned to provide audience sound; smaller speakers are used that reduce sound quality. Although the leads sounded good (I think this is because their voices overpowered the speakers), the ensemble sounded tinny and limited — I don’t know how to describe it, but it wasn’t full and frequencies were cut off. This could be microphones; it could be speakers; it could be acoustics. It was strongly noticeable for us sophomores in Seating C; it was probably less of a problem for the Seniors and Juniors. I will say that the subwoofers under the seats helped you really feel the music.

A second problem was the seating. The nature of it made loading the stage slow, with lots of narrow pathways and stairs to climb. It was also uncomfortable, with narrow benches and seat cushions. It was worse than the Rose Bowl’s old seats. I’m not sure that they can do much about this. I’ll also note that you don’t receive your program until after the show (so people don’t drop them leading to slips onstage), so you don’t even know running time or songs or actors.

A last problem was with the music — not with the notes themselves or the musicians, but with the quality of the music. The nature of the stage and where the musicians were positioned meant that the speaker problem affected the music as well and gave it (at times) a pre-recorded quality. Adjustment of the speakers and acoustics, if possible, would help. Again — these didn’t make the show bad, but distracted this audience member’s attention from the show itself.

Those are the problems, which are tolerable and correctable. The good was really good — and by this I mean the performances that director Brady Schwind (FB) worked with the actors to create, and the realistic and clever movement driven by choreographer Lee Martino (FB). The creative use of the space, the interaction with the audiences, the complete rethinking of the performance and song and dance and staging was mesmerizing. It didn’t bring the horror to you as the promotions have been claiming, but it did make you part of the story and created the “I was there” feeling.

In the lead positions for this show were Southern California favorite Misty Cotton (FB) as Margaret White and Emily Lopez (FB) as Carrie White. Cotton’s role was smaller, but her intensity made up for it in every scene she was in. Lopez captured the ostracized outsider well, while still capturing that innocence that Carrie requires. She made you feel for her. Both had voices that were capable of making up for the speaker problems — you didn’t realize those problems when these two were singing. And oh, could they sing. They were just beautiful in their songs.  Notable performances were Lopez’s titlular number “Carrie” and her “Why Not Me?”, and her performance with Cotton in “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance”. Cotton was a powerhouse in “When There’s No One” in the second act. Great, great performances.

Next we turn to Kayla Parker (FB) as Sue and Jon Robert Hall (FB) as Tommy. These were the two characters who tried, perhaps too late, to see the good in Carrie. Both gave touching and believable performances and sang beautifully — again, they had the voices to overcome the problems with the speakers. Especially touching was Parker’s “Once You See” and Halls’ “Dreamer in Disguise”. I’d also include Jenelle Lynn Randall (FB)’s Miss Gardner in this tier — she was great as the gym teaching and very touching in her interactions with Lopez’s Carrie — especially her duet “Unsuspecting Hearts”

Also in this tier was our primary antagonist and her boy-toy: Valerie Rose Curiel (FB) as Chris and Garrett Marshall/FB as Billy.  Curiel was powerful, especially in her number “The World According to Chris” (although she had some microphone problems that will hopefully be corrected). Marshall worked well as Billy, and gave off the correct aura of unthinking bully.

Rounding out the cast in the smaller named roles/ensemble-ish (in that you never really got to know the characters) were Bryan Dobson (FB) (Mr. Stephens/Reverend Bliss), Michael Starr (FB) (George, u/s Tommy), Adante Carter (FB) (Dale), Ian Littleworth (FB) (Freddy), Kimberly Ann Steele (FB) (Helen), Rachel Farr (FB) (Norma), Teya Patt (FB) (Frieda), Carly Bracco (FB) (Tina, u/s Sue and Chris), Lyle Colby Mackston (FB) (Jackie, u/s Billy), Kevin Patrick Doherty (FB) (Brent), Chris Meissner (FB) (Vic), and Amy Segal/FB (Ruth, u/s Carrie). I particularly remember the performance of Patt as she caught my eye with her movement and energy. Farr was also notable as Norma.

Music was under the supervision of Adam Wachter (FB). Brian P. Kennedy (FB) was the music director and conductor, and led the off-stage 7 piece band consisting of Kennedy and Mike Greenwood on Keyboard, Justin Smith and Mike Abraham on various guitars, John Krovoza on cello, Nate Light on various bass, and Eric Heinly on drums and percussion. The music was very good, although the fullness of the orchestra’s sound was hindered by their positioning and the speakers. This may just be an uncorrectable artifact of the staging. As noted earlier, the creative choreography was by Lee Martino (FB), with flying choreographed by Paul Rubin (FB). I’ve previously noted how the movement used the space well and was clever and creative; the flying augmented this well in a number of places, especially the final flying sequences. Carly Bracco (FB) was the dance captain.

Turning to the technical. I’ve previously noted the problems with the sound, which was designed by the omnipresent Cricket S. Myers (FB). Some elements worked well — the subwoofers under the seats, the background sound effects, the surround nature of the sound. Others didn’t, and I couldn’t tell if the problems were something correctable in the transition from preview to opening, or were endemic to the staging. Talking to the sound board operator at intermission, some of the problems may have been microphone related or due to the aiming of the speakers; I’d also believe that other problems are due to speaker size/quality and the poor acoustics onstage (as the space wasn’t designed for audiences). Luckily, the distracting nature of the sound starts to fade into the background as the show goes on.

The lighting and projection design of Brian Gale was very strong, especially considering the nature of the space and some of the uncorrectable distractions (backstage lighting for actor movement; catwalk lights). There was extensive use of movers and what I’m guessing were LED lekos (as they changed colors but looked like lekos). Stephen Gifford (FB) did the scenic design, and it was a very creative use of the space — ranging from the movable bleachers to the extension into the La Mirada audience area for the prom to the use of scaffolding — all worked well Jim Steinmeyer provided the illusion design, which effectively created the belief that Carrie had telekenesis. The costume design of Adriana Lambarri and the hair/wig design of Katie McCoy worked well together to create believable high school students. I should note that this production appeared to update the year to the present; the costumes certainly weren’t 1970s. Property design was by Terry Hanrahan. A few additional technical notes before I move into the remaining credits: The shower scenes were effectively created through the use of what appeared to be misters; note there there is brief nudity on the part of Ms. Lopez that is mostly not visible to much of the audience. Also effective was the blood drop — I was expecting them to do this with lights, so when the theatrical blood came down it was very effective. Note that this is not Evil Dead: The Musical — you don’t need to worry about a spash zone.

Remaining credits: Michael Donovan (Casting Director); Christopher Adams-Cohen (FB) (Assistant Director); O&M Co. and David Elzer/Demand PR (Press); Buck Mason (FB) (General Manager); David Cruise (Technical Director); Jess Manning (Assistant Stage Manager); Heidi Westrom (Production Stage Manager). Most interesting credit: Blood products sponsored and supplied by Alcone CompanyCarrie The Musical was produced by La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB), Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman, and The Transfer Group, with a whole list of associate producers.

Carrie: The Musical (FB) continues at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) through April 5, 2015. Tickets are available through the Carrie website or by calling the La Mirada box office at (562) 944-9801. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar and LA Stage Tix. Don’t be scared off by the original “horror” nature of the story or the original “flop”. This is well worth seeing.

Pro99 - Vote No NowThe director of this show, Brady Schwind (FB), got his start at the Neighborhood Playhouse in Palos Verdes. The Neighborhood Playhouse was a 99 seat and under venue, and put on remarkably creative stagings — stagings that would not exist without the financial freedom that the 99 seat plan created. This experience permitted Schwind to move up to this larger staging of Carrie using the same team — a larger staging that employed a number of Equity actors and other union actors on full contracts. This is common for 99 seat productions — numerous productions have moved from the intimate to larger theatres and union contracts. 99 seat theatre is vital to the creative community of Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is a unique creative market. Unlike other cities, Los Angeles actors can make their living wage in TV and film, and exercise their creative muscle for spiritual health on the intimate stage. AEA plans to implement a proposal that will eliminate the availability of the 99 seat plan. Details on the proposal, and the almost unified opposition to the proposal from the LA acting community, as well as those who support that community, may be found at ilove99.org (FB). As a regular theatregoer in Los Angeles, I urge AEA actors who can to vote down this proposal. Voting “yes” communicates the message that you like this proposal. Voting “No” indicates that this proposal is not acceptable, and permits AEA to work with The Producers League of Los Angeles – Intimate (FB), the LA Stage Alliance , and other creatives to develop a tiered system acceptable to all stakeholders. Again, I urge AEA actors to vote no.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Next weekend brings two shows:  “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21. March concludes with “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. The following weekend will see us back at a music store listening to a performance: this time, it is Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB). After that we’re in Vegas for a week — I haven’t yet determined the shows yet, but Menopause the Musical looks quite likely. We may also work in “After the Revolution” at the Chance Theatre (FB). May begins with “Loopholes: The Musical” at the Hudson Main Stage (FB) on May 2. This is followed by “Words By Ira Gershwin – A Musical Play” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on May 9 (and quite likely a visit to Alice – The Musical at Nobel Middle School).  The weekend of May 16 brings “Beer for Breakfast” at REP East (FB). The weekend of May 23 brings Confirmation services at TAS, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl, and also has a hold for “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB).  The last weekend of May currently has a hold for “Fancy Nancy” at the Chance Theatre (FB) and “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB).  June is equally crazy, as we’ve got the Hollywood Fringe Festival amongst other things (including our annual drum corps show). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.