When Alex asked if I would like to watch Carrie because her friend had extra complimentary tickets (orchestra!), I immediately said yes. Carrie was the first Stephen King book I read and the thought of seeing it set to music was one of those this-I-have-to-see things. It took Speedy and I two and a half hours to drive from our house in Antipolo to the RCBC Theater in Makati last Thursday but we made it on time.
Carrie, the musical, is based on Stephen King’s novel about a girl with special powers. Telekinesis had been in the English dictionary before Carrie was published but it was the novel that popularized the term pyrokinesis. The characters are the same; so is the story. Having read the novel and having seen the 1976 film adaptation that made Sissy Spacek a star, I knew exactly who would live, who would die, who the good guys and the baddies were.
Carrie White, raised by a loony religious zealot mother, is made fun of at school. She gets her first period while showering after a P.E. class, she panics and thinks she’s dying, and the girls throw sanitary napkins at her while laughing and humiliating her. The P.E. teacher later makes the girls apologize. Sue Snell is guilt-ridden and, as a way of making amends, asks her dreamboy boyfriend Tommy Ross to ask Carrie to the prom instead. Sue’s best friend Chris Hargensen refuses to apologize, gets suspended and banned from the prom. To get back at Carrie, she arranges with her boyfriend to set up a bucket of pig’s blood over the stage so that after Carrie is crowned Prom Queen following a rigged voting, she could pull the rope attached to the bucket and drench Carrie in blood. Carrie, feeling totally humiliated and betrayed, uses her power and sets the school gym on fire.
What I didn’t know was that the music would totally blow me away. How a horror story could be transformed into a musical was nothing short of magical. Michael Gore’s music is catchy, haunting and powerful. The lyrics by Dean Pitchford perfectly capture the story so that even those who had not read the book nor seen the 1976 movie wouldn’t find it hard to understand the characters and follow the story.
What I didn’t expect was that I would see Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo in a new light and find another dimension of respect for her as a stage actress — the kind I reserve for the likes of Glenn Close (no, not Lea Salonga, sorry). This was not the same girl who was cast as Maria in West Side Story and as Liesl in The Sound of Music more probably because apart from a good singing voice, she also looked perfect for the roles. Being pretty is not a requirement for playing Carrie’s mother, Margaret. What it requires is intensity. And, in the musical, a powerful and haunting voice because Margaret’s songs should make your hackles rise or bring you to tears, or both. And Menchu delivered perfectly. She was, in a word, sublime.
What I especially didn’t expect was that I would be totally captivated by this girl who played Carrie. This girl whose name I didn’t even know until long after the curtain call and the standing ovation. This girl who was trained for a role in less than two weeks because the original Carrie had been taken ill. I would learn later that her name is Kayla (sometimes spelled K-La) Rivera. Such voice, such expressive face, such awesome, awesome talent.
As with every production, some members of the cast will always stand out and some will disappoint. Even among the supporting cast and the ensemble, this is always true. Among the supporting players, Sheila Valderrama-Martinez as the sympathetic P.E. teacher was a standout, Yanah Laural as Sue Snell was competent, Markki Stroem as Tommy Ross was blah, and Jill Peña as Chris Hargensen was a letdown.
I understand that Tommy Ross had to be played by someone good-looking, as conceived by Stephen King; otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense why Carrie would be smitten enough to defy her mother and go to the prom with him. But this is a stage musical and Tommy Ross has to be able to sing and dance apart from looking good. Stroem’s singing and acting made Tommy Ross look half-baked. And in the portions where Tommy had to dance… to describe Stroem’s dancing as awkward would be way too kind.
As for Jill Peña as Chris Hargensen… It really hurts my ears when a Filipina speaks English with such contrived twang to sound more American than the Americans. That’s how Jill Peña sounded. Stephen King’s Chris Hargensen is self-centered, selfish and cruel but more of the shallow Mean Girls style. Jill Peña as Chris Hargensen had the vindictiveness of an older low-class woman. Palengkera was the description that came to mind. She just totally jarred.
The ensemble was almost perfect. And I say almost because one person ruined it. In the scene where the P.E. teacher was making the girls apologize to Carrie for the napkin-throwing incident, one girl’s part was to laugh disdainfully. That laughter was one of the most god-awful sounds I have ever heard in my entire life. Too forced and, worse, it sounded as though the actress didn’t understand what she was supposed to convey. It was terrible acting at its worst. It was just a small part, it was a only a few seconds of laughter but, goodness, it made me cringe. During the intermission, people were actually talking about that laughter with that eeewww expression on their faces.
In songs where the members of the ensemble has solo lines, this same actress with the awful laughter could hardly be understood when she sang her lines — not only was her voice weak, she also had a problem pronouncing her “s”. Worse, she couldn’t dance. I would learn later that her name is Garie Concepcion, actor Gaby Concepcion’s daughter with sometime politician Grace Ibuna. Enough said.
As for the technical aspects of the production, I will only comment on three things. First, the stage design was simple but effective. Second, the lighting design was so good at heightening the emotions being conveyed in every song. Third, the climax of the story, the part when Carrie set the gym on fire, left much to be desired. The collapsing rafters just weren’t enough to relay that feeling of frenzied telekinetic destruction. The “fire” projection (no real fire, naturally) wasn’t enough to give the impression of a closed space being engulfed in flames. That scene could have been better.
Despite the little imperfections, I was happy. It was a great show and Carrie is a good musical.