Stephen King found early success in horror with his 1974 novel “Carrie,” which in turn launched the 1976 film. Sissy Spacek took to the screen as an abused and meek 17-year-old girl who had the power of telekinesis. With a holy-roller mother religiously sheltering her every move, the unpopular gal became the center of mean-girl backlash at school, as students picked on her and set her up for the ultimate humiliation on prom night.
In the 1980s the film’s script writer, Lawrence D. Cohen, attempted a musical of “Carrie.” Though it flopped, an off-Broadway revival received praise in 2012, with the score and book revised by original composers Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, along with Cohen. Since, the show has taken over stages in community theaters across the nation. This week the new City Stage Co. will launch their premiere season with artistic directors Nicholas Gray and Rachael Moser leading the company’s change of the guard, since Justin Smith turned over his more-than-a-decade reins in the spring.
“We knew we were going to kick off the season with something spooky and timely for Halloween,” Gray says. “Rachael and I decided ‘Carrie’ is a great show to begin with—relevant, poignant, challenging, yet able to be cast.”
They’ve taken on a mix of talent, with veteran performers and newbies alike. Hannah Elizabeth Smith will play Carrie, and her mother will be performed by the always-impressive Katherine Vernon. “It’s my perspective that in many ways, the character of Margaret is the true horror of the show, as opposed to Carrie’s telekinetic nature,” Gray notes. “Kat has risen to the occasion; her performance is staggering and definitely incites a lot of discomfort.”
Hannah Laham will play Sue Snell—an up-and-comer Gray says folks should have their eyes on. Annie Marsh will pull off Chris Hargensen and Patrick Basquill will take on the role of Billy Nolan.
“They are dynamic duo in every way; their chemistry is phenomenal,” Gray states. “The amazing thing is that during casting, 80 percent of the actors who auditioned had never done a show at City Stage before, and there are only four or five members [in the show] who have performed on this stage.”
While the horror genre can be interpretted numerous ways, “Carrie the Musical” is not meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek. Gray says the musical arose to honor the book and not the film. It’s not a parody but an iteration of King’s initial words. Gray is directing the show to pick up after the prom, with Sue Snell, the only survivor, retelling the night’s events to an unnamed agency.
“I decided to take a fragmented approach that capitalizes on the relative insanity, confusion, chaos, and imagination of a young girl that just watched all of her friends die, as she is pummeled by the questions of those who don’t believe her unbelievable story,” Gray explains.
The music reflects the constriction and rigidty of the show as well. Gray brought in Wilmingtonian-turned-New-Yorker-turned-Wilmingtonian-again Bryan Putnam to oversee musical direction.
“The most impact always comes through the dramatic tension in the Carrie-Margaret (mother) scenes,” Putnam describes. “The mother-child relationship, burdened with a violently sad religious undercurrent, is unfortunately far too common.”
Having studied the show via video of the Seattle production, as well as attending the off-Broadway run with Marin Mazzie, Putnam is attracted to the idea that we all have to develop certain “powers” to deal with hardships, even if less intense than, say, telekinesis. Therefore the music takes on dramatic rock and includes the languid bows of the cello.
“Numbers such as ‘And Eve Was Weak,’ drive the emotional aspects forward,” Putnam says—a song that highlights the scene of Carrie telling her mother she got her period. “In” does a good job animating the frantic angst of teenage energy, while “Do Me a Favor” shows the exacting of revenge. “And ‘A Night We’ll Never Forget’ blows the roof off the joint,” Putnam promises.
“Bryan’s music direction has brought this show to a level I didn’t even know was possible,” Gray compliments.
Adding to the music is choreography by Kendra Goehring-Garrett. Though not a Bob Fosse or Jerome Robbins’ show, the movements here are less linear and more frenetic and abstract.
“I love doing shows where I can create with a clean slate!” Goehring-Garrett says. “I tried to choreograph a pedestrian style to the movement, but kept it very angsty and stylized in places.”
She’s incorporating traditonal jazz and keeping it lyrical and fluid. Goehring-Garrett has guided the show by remembering all the ups and downs of that age. “Their day-to-day life is so emotionally charged,” she says. “At least that’s what I remember from being a teenager.”
Themes of dealing with bullies—whether in school or with family—and garnering strength of character mark the context. Special effects help propel the telekinesis plot point. And the famous bucket of blood will be included. Gray has depended on Terry Collins from Scenic Asylum, with whom he worked when he directed City Stage’s “Evil Dead: The Musical” a few years ago.
“Terry did an amazing job with making set pieces move by themselves, so here we are again, needing to create some telekinetic magic,” Gray quips. “In the beginning, I did a lot of research on other professional productions, to get a sense of the best way to create the infamous blood-drop. I was really excited about a couple theaters that did some incredible projection work, but at the end of the day, Rachael and I agreed our audience wants to see a bucket of blood dropped on Carrie—so, yes, there will be blood!”
Lighting will be done by Dallas LaFon, with costumes and props overseen by Rachael Moser. Set design will be completed by William Burns and Clarissa Thomas.
“Though I think comedy is the most difficult stage foray, I think scaring people via stage is a close runnerup,” Gray says. “While we are utilizing as many technical opportunities as possible with ‘Carrie,’ the horror relies on the psychology of the show, and I believe it will translate horrifically.”
Carrie the Musical
Oct. 16-19, 24-26, 31-Nov. 2, 8 p.m.
City Stage Theater, 21 N. Front St.