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Carrie White Will Never Die: “Carrie: The Musical” at the Studio Theatre

The horrific power of perverted Christianity makes this musical work.

Carrie is the only book I ever put down because I knew I was too young for it. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade and I was staying with cousins, taking the opportunity to raid their bookshelves. I flipped idly through the book’s opening, got to the shower scene (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”), and–for once in my life–realized I was in over my head. The combination of nudity, menstruation, and sadism, all happening to kids just a few years older than I was, overwhelmed me. I’m not ready for this, I thought.

Part of Carrie’s power is that it’s a story about the universal experience of not being ready: for change, for moral responsibility, for life after high school. It’s a story which speaks to the boy sitting in jail, the girl staring at the pregnancy test waiting to see if the second line will show up. We treat youth as a Las Vegas of the soul, but what we do in our youth is as irrevocable as what we do everywhere else.

Spoilers for Carrie–the book, movie, and musical–below.

DC’s Studio Theatre is staging “Carrie: The Musical” through August 3, on its smaller upstairs stage. I was surprised to find that the elements of Carrie White’s story which usually resonate most deeply with me left me pretty cold here, and the one element I’ve always dismissed was the one which most chilled and haunted me.

Studio handles the staging well, as usual. The stage is set up as a school gym (I liked the GYM SHOES ONLY stencil on the wall) and the minimal sets never seem mannered or overly-abstract. Carrie’s rampage doesn’t quite work–you need more scale, and I hate to say I think you need more SFX, to capture the bleak glee we should feel as she finally wreaks her revenge–although Emily Zickler as Carrie and the lighting design make the most of a few big gestures and twisting facial expressions. I enjoyed the fact that evil teen queen Chris Hargenson (Eben K. Logan) was outfitted in one of those tank tops with the upside-down crosses which are all the rage these days.

The musical’s framing device, in which an unseen voice interrogates complicit but guilt-ridden teen Sue Snell, mirrors the novel’s use of “documentary” material (Carrie is a bit of a found-footage novel) but doesn’t work nearly as well. The news articles and other documents quoted in Carrie were powerful because they provided cold, analytical, “objective” descriptions of the emotionally-charged events we were reading about. They showed how Carrie White (and Sue Snell) might look to an outsider, someone without the sympathy we develop over the course of the novel. The interrogation, by contrast, seems like a pushy plea for audience pity: Poor Sue is being berated by an invisible white man! Won’t you feel for her?

Carrie’s documents exposed the complicity of the audience–the way we repackage tragedy as news, so we can treat real people’s misery as entertainment or fodder for moral fables. The musical’s invisible interrogator, by contrast, is distanced from us, so we can safely judge both him and Sue.

One thing the musical should do well is to create a chorus of teens: a sense of “adolescence” as its own character, the way the town of Derry is a character in IT. Michael Gore’s music and Dean Pitchford’s lyrics are clearly aiming at this chorus effect. Gore won Emmys for his work on “Fame,” which not only shows in the soundscape of “Carrie” but adds a hint of self-referential humor to Carrie’s foreboding insistence that one day people will know her name. The “Fame” sound, glossy and polished, spotlights the musical’s themes of being looked at and judged, hiding one’s true self behind a glitzy exterior. “Carrie” feels like it takes place in the “Glee” era, not the ’70s.

That is not always a good thing. The weakest point of “Carrie: The Musical” is its literal-minded sincerity. Everyone says exactly what they think and feel. The lyrics lack salt and acid: “Why do they always treat me so bad?” “What’s going on deep in me?/All of these feelings suddenly….” “Tommy, you don’t understand/What was just a joke got out of hand.”

The bullying teens pity themselves for being wealthy American teenagers, that tragic species. I actually do have sympathy for people who don’t yet understand that they are living their real lives all the time–there is no audition, no warm-up, and therefore no warning before consequences suddenly kick in–but the show expresses the teens’ feelings of fear and failure in such generic terms that it’s hard to respond with anything other than bored loathing. Imagine if that piece of genuine spiritual wisdom, “Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting a hard battle,” were whined at you by someone about to kick a puppy.

The lyrics are by far the worst aspect of “Carrie.” The best aspect–at least in Studio’s staging–is the one part I was really dreading: Margaret White’s abusive Christianity.

Carrie’s mom is a Christian of sorts. I don’t think all the stuff she quotes from the Bible is really in there, and in both the book and the movie she came across like a fifth-generation Xerox of other, more vividly-felt and fully-realized portrayals of weaponized religion. It felt more like Stephen King had seen a lot of horror flicks (or read a lot of Slate pieces, to be anachronistic) and stitched together his shaming, punishing Christian monster from other people’s versions; Margaret White didn’t feel like somebody you might know. So the fact of her religion always felt cheap to me: Of course she’s evil, she wears a cross around her neck!

But in this production, especially in the first half (when Margaret still has power over Carrie), Margaret White and her religion completely work. The utter lack of camp or self-awareness which makes the teens so cloying and frustrating makes Margaret White devastating. There are no “dirty pillows” here. I choked up when she and Carrie share a broken duet, and mother sings, “I will always love you,” to the daughter she’ll kill before the week is out.

Much of the power of this portrayal is due to Barbara Walsh, whose sad eyes and rich, trauma-veined voice demand empathy. Zickler’s Carrie is wonderful, so young and sweet–and so easily overwhelmed by rage once she finally allows herself to feel it. But Walsh’s Margaret steals the show.

The music helps a lot. I felt that the music became noticeably more haunting when Margaret was around, often shifting suddenly from a high to a low register as the darker sides of Margaret’s protective love of her daughter were revealed. Margaret White is terrifying, as damaged and as destructive as her daughter. Her twisted Christianity, which offers no mercy to women caught in lipstick let alone in adultery, seems alive and feverish. It’s flushed with blood; it’s not a paper effigy of other people’s traumas. “Carrie: The Musical” convinced me that the overplayed, audience-flattering hate figure of the evil Christian can still be deployed effectively and thoughtfully in horror.