A jammed parking lot at the normally quiet Drama Learning Center says all you need to know about the new production going on inside. The TYA Teen Professionals troupe has a genuine hit on its hands with Carrie: The Musical.
This is the little musical that refused to die. With music and lyrics by the Fame team of Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, it became a record-setting Broadway flop in 1988, then went on to more workshops, restagings, rewrites and a short-lived off-Broadway revival in 2011.
The latter version is the one being mounted by the insanely ambitious Howard County playhouse. Director Stephanie Lynn Williams embraces the Stephen King tale of mistreated high school misfit Carrie White, using it as a full-fledged treatise on the evils of bullying.
The teenaged singer-actors on stage seem empowered by the theme, kicking into gear with their very first high school musical number, “In,” about the pressures to conform. That same mob psychology soon leads to a group humiliation of the socially backward Carrie when she experiences her first menstrual period in an off-stage shower room.
Back at home, Carrie gets no comfort at all from her religious-fundamentalist mother, who views all bodily functions as a sin. Into that locked closet with you, Carrie White, until you see the error of your ways!
Unfortunately for the people who abuse poor Carrie, she possesses awesome telekinetic powers that should never he unleashed when drunk, angry or feeling threatened — as, say, when you are maliciously drenched in pig’s blood on prom night.
This production gets perhaps the most elaborate mounting yet at the cozy Drama Learning Center. The proscenium stage is laid bare to the rear wall, providing a flexible space for the large ensemble cast to maneuver in.
The uncredited set design features mobile panels and risers, chairs hung at angles on walls, ladders suspended from the ceiling, and projected images of floating windows and religious icons. The effect of a disruption to the natural order and an unsettling sense of chaos is a perfect backdrop for the paranormal goings-on.
Riki K’s multimedia designs include not just the projected backgrounds, but become a key player in the carnage of the last act. That is when the school gymnasium bursts its fire valves and the pools of water become a deadly electrical grid before the whole edifice erupts in flames. It is a splendid display of special effects. The Lighting Design by Lynn Joslin throughout left nothing to be desired.
Congratulations, too, to Director Williams and her team for returning the whole blood-dunking episode to where it belongs — from above. The successful effect triggered an audible audience gasp on opening night.
In general, the teen cast is more attuned to the singing challenges than to every acting nuance. But doing the score justice is most of the battle here. Even on first hearing it is more memorable than most of the new scores we are getting these days.
Hailey Ibberson does a wonderful job as Carrie White, conveying all of the vulnerability and repressed beauty that can lie waiting behind a mousy exterior. She has a marvelous singing voice, too, which is especially well suited for the lovely duet “Unsuspecting Hearts,” and reveals potential star voltage in “Why Not Me?”
As Tommy, the lone sympathetic male in the crowd, Jason Quackenbush shines in his poetic solo “Dreamer in Disguise.” And Tori Stroud’s strong acting and singing help turn Carrie’s domineering mother, Margaret White, into a multidimensional villain.
Lila Cooper as Sue gives us a focus for our sympathies, even as Lindsay Hopkins as the hardhearted Chris does the same for our antipathies.
The live musical accompaniment by Tiffany Underwood Holmes and a versatile four-piece ensemble helped wring every bit of energy, melodicism and poignance out of the first-rate score.
Like the book and the 1976 movie before it, Carrie: The Musical contains diverse tones and requires some suspension of disbelief and maybe even critical judgment. It works on its own level, by its own rules, for its own audience. The Drama Learning Center is among the first regional theaters to get the stage rights, but it surely won’t be the last.
Running Time: Approximately Two hours and 20 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Carrie plays through January 24, 2015 at The Drama Learning Center – 9130-I Red Branch Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call he box office at (410) 997-9352, or purchase them online. Tickets are going fast.