New Melbourne company Ghost Light have made a loud and proud declaration by debuting with the infamous flop Carrie: The Musical. And given that we haven’t seen a production of it in Melbourne, it’s a clever choice. Who doesn’t want to see a show that’s known as one of the worst musicals to open on Broadway?
The Royal Shakespeare Company premiered Carrie: The Musical in 1988; Les Miserables had been such a success for them that another musical was an obvious choice. It didn’t do well. But it was Carrie and being based on the well-known 1976 film, which was based on Stephen King’s runaway success debut novel, it got a lot of financial support and opened on Broadway in 1988. It didn’t do well, closing after five performances. However, it has has gone on to earn a cult status for being atrocious.
Carrie is a teenager who has been abused by her over-loving and god-fearing mother. She’s an outsider at high school and her school life goes to hell when she freaks out about getting her first period and thinking that she’s dying. Her mum makes things worse, but a teacher helps out and Carrie finds out that she has a friend among the mean girls. But she doesn’t count on one particularly mean girl’s need for revenge and the mean girl doesn’t know about Carrie’s trauma-induced telekinesis.
It’s known as a horror story that explores the damage caused by fundamentalist religion and questions the power of young women and the existence of the fundamentalist god.
The musical’s about finding friends, standing up to bullies and being yourself. Which is great – in High School Musical.
It’s a dud. Musically dull, lyrically bland, Carrie feels like it was created by people who have seen musicals and replicated the outline without any detail. It’s superficial and doesn’t try to explore the guts and horror that created the story.
No wonder it’s so popular! It’s fun to watch something really bad and laugh at it.
But this production doesn’t invite the laughs. It’s played so straight that the opening night audience didn’t have permission to laugh. It opens with earnest performances and cheesy choreography, which nails the tone that would free up the giggles, but the earnestness seems genuine. I hope that the floating Jesus picture on a string and the magical slamming locker doors are meant to be funny in their tacky obviousness, but I’m more afraid that they are serious.
But don’t stop yourself from seeing it. After all, how often do you get the chance to see of Carrie: The Musical. And it has Chelsea Gibb as Carrie’s mum and Emily Milledge as Carrie.
When these two are on the stage, the story comes alive.
Gibb plays the mother as a deeply traumatised women and creates an empathy and genuine feeling that overcomes her inane lyrics and the past images of the mother as a one-dimensional sadistic bitch.
And there’s Emily Milledge. In an astonishing performance, she finds more in Carrie than this musical deserves. From the moment she opens her mouth, there’s no doubt that she’s going to bring us through the horror. As she’s shown in her work with independent theatre The Rabble (Story of O, Room of Regret and Frankenstein), a can’t-stop-watching performance comes from within the performer and has little to do with the words and story they are given. She shows us Carrie’s inner hell and makes us dread the pig blood rather than looking forward to the most famous and gruesome scene in the story.
Without these two, it’s just a confusingly straight production of an outrageously bad work, but the combination of which ensures that it’s going to do well.