“Carrie the Musical” at Croswell…or why you should go see this flop musical (Review)

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A musical theater history lesson for you today: Carrie the musical (Lawrence Cohen book, Michael Gore music, Dean Pitchford lyrics) has gone down in history as one the the biggest (and most expensive) Broadway flops ever…opening in England at the Royal Shakespeare Festival in Stratford no less (with Barbara Cook playing the mother)…written, rewritten, reworked, it never worked…Cook left the show in a huff (reportedly after almost being hit by some scenery, though most likely because she was smart enough to bail ship before NYC), and despite reviews that were all pans, somehow arrived in NYC with no changes at all, and got the same horrendous reception and closed after 5 performances (with Betty Buckley having replaced Cook). Those of us who were lucky enough to see it know we witnessed Broadway history (some of us, eh hem, me, even saw it TWICE and brought friends to see the worst musical ever written along). Entire books have been written on this failure.  Then, lo and behold, a retooled version opened off-Broadway a few years ago, and it wasn’t terrible. It was still bad, but the music was finally recorded, and the show has taken on a new life in college, high school, and community theater.

And you should see the production currently playing at the Croswell Opera House because you won’t see a better production of it anywhere locally.

See it for the decent score, some of the power ballads of which are simply gorgeous — under the musical direction of Jonathan Sills, both the orchestra and most of the leads sound great. Some of the ensemble struggle with the higher notes of this difficult score, but its passable and works okay. Very strong Mariah Valdes (Carrie) and Elizabeth Baugh (her mother) are excellent individually and their scenes together are superb. They alone are reason enough to see the show.

See it for the great set work and lighting design by Don Wilson and Tiff Crutchfield. Granted, shows always look great when creepy scenes can be bathed in red washes, but its another story altogether to make the colors pop as well, and here they do.

See it for an energized young cast, many of whom are appearing for the first time on Croswell’s stage, and Eric Parker’s swift and fluid direction.

But don’t see it for the story — its a whitewashed version of Carrie with nearly all of the creep-factor missing; it has one of the worst books ever written for a musical (not surprising given how much tinkering was done with this show early on), and it makes you more sad for Carrie than it raises any type of suspense.

And don’t see it for the spectacle — while there are some attempts made at conveying some stage tricks indicating Carrie’s telekinesis (read: a chair sliding a few feet), most of the magic is missing here. One of my favorite scenes in the show, Carrie preparing for prom, is missing the flying hand mirrors and brushes, and the finale (though it makes good use of projection and smoke effects) is missing any type of exciting climax.

Still, you are not likely to see a better production of this show anywhere locally — and it is worth seeing.

Finally, see it for the historical significance of the musical theater piece itself. You will most likely find yourself talking about it all the way home, whether you loved it or hated it (and there were plenty in the audience who loved this show, both on Broadway and at the Croswell last night). And if you can get a group of people to talk about musical theater, then all the better.


Carrie continues at the Croswell Opera House through October 26th. Tickets at croswell.org or 517-264-SHOW

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