Haunting CARRIE THE MUSICAL at Milburn Stone Theatre

by David Bradford

I don’t do horror. I don’t do suspense. I have never, and will never, crack open a single Stephen King book. So when I was asked to review CARRIE THE MUSICAL at Milburn Stone Theater in North East, MD, I wanted very much to say no. But not wanting to be a difficult reviewer, I ultimately said yes. Make no mistake, I wasn’t looking forward to it. In fact, I was very much dreading going to the show….

Was I in for surprise.

CARRIE THE MUSICAL proved to be a rare and awe-inspiring convergence of three elements critical to a successful production: a beautiful, well-constructed, if not haunting, book and score; a community theater company that consistently puts out professional quality productions; and easily the most talented and gifted cast of dedicated young performers currently in this region.

The book for CARRIE THE MUSICAL was written by Lawrence D. Cohen, the lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and the music by Michael Gore. Even though it is based on the original book by Stephen King, it definitely has a very modern feel.

The story is about Carrie (Megan Valle), an awkward teenager in high school. She has an overprotective mother who’s level of protection borders on the psychotic. She has sadly left her daughter very ill-prepared for the realities of the world. This naivete leads to a very embarrassing personal incident in the gym locker room, which rapidly snatches Carrie from the ranks of the obscure to make her the focus of intense bullying. Out of this bullying event, however, emerges two distinct sides. One side is remorseful and sympathetic to Carrie and seeks to redeem themselves by helping her overcome those challenges. The second side, seeks to punish her for the negative fallout from the incident. Carrie, meanwhile, discovers some new emotions she has never experienced before as well as a supernatural power she did not know she had. The plans and desires of all three of these parties collide into and inevitable and shocking night they’ll never forget.

When writing my reviews I generally subscribe to the “save the best for last” philosophy. I usually highlight key performers in the show before mentioning that one performer whom I thought was the best of the best. But this is going to be a lengthy review and I would hate it if my thoughts on this individual were overlooked.

Megan Valle’s bio is impressive, but so are the bios of many of the young people found in the show. So I was curious as to why the director would choose her for the title role. When Carrie first emerges onstage I thought I had my answer. Valle manages to pull off a pale and awkward look that one would expect for this character. However, that impression only lasted a few minutes until she opened her mouth to sing her first few notes. Her stunning vocal abilities will leave you breathless. She can easily move between singing about intense painful emotions to celebrating wonderful happy ones. Her techniques and pitch control are flawless. I did not hear one false note the entire night.

But her abilities do not end there. Valle takes this character and lays her emotional struggles out on the stage for you to watch in close detail. You cannot help but to fall in love with Carrie from moment one. Doing so allows this show to be an emotional experience for the entire audience. We want Carrie to succeed. We want her life to be a happy one. Yet strangely enough, we understand the violent reaction she has in the closing scenes. Valle has all that ability and is only a senior in high school. It is safe to say some wonderful experiences in theater lie ahead for this young lady.

But as I mentioned earlier this cast is comprised of some of the most talented young performers in the area. Sue Snell (Christy Wyatt) is one of those sympathetic to Carrie. Remorseful at having been swept up in the bullying she sets out to right things by hatching a plan with her loving boyfriend Tommy (AJ Melendez) to give Carrie a memorable experience. The show is also intended to be seen through Sue’s eyes. The show opens with her apparently being questioned by investigators on the incidents that happened that fateful night. Most of the action takes place in what are presumed to be flashbacks of her memory. In the scenes in which Sue is directly involved we see her as part of the action. However, in many of those scenes in which she is not a direct part, she can often be seen in the shadows as an observer.

Wyatt, a college freshman, displays her tremendous vocal abilities as well as character intensity right from the get-go in the opening number. She sets the tone for the whole show. She brings the goodness of Sue to life and yet still allows a little of Sue’s doubt to creep in later in the show.

Christy Wyatt as Sue Snell and Megan Valle as Carrie White in MST’s CARRIE THE MUSICAL. (Photo credit: Scott Serio, Cecil Scene)

Tommy is the kind of guy every girl wishes she could have. He is strong, athletic, yet tender, caring, and genuine. Melendez, a high school sophomore, but one with extensive experience, is perfectly matched for the role. He, too, has wonderful vocal abilities which are on full display when his character sings the poem he wrote a cappella.

Others seeking success for Carrie include high school gym teacher Miss Gardner (Lauren Spencer–Harris). It is clear that she feels for Carrie and takes her under her wing.  Spencer-Harris does a wonderful job in providing that feeling of protection that we seek to wrap around Carrie.

Among those seeking to destroy Carrie is spoiled rich girl Chris (Jackie Kappus). Angered at the punishment she received for the bullying incident, she seeks to plan, with the help of her boyfriend Billy (Matt Peterson), the ultimate humiliation for Carrie.  Kappus brings a level of attitude to the role that makes you want to hate Chris so much. In many ways, she’s representing the evil side of human nature. She has a hard edge to her vocals that sends that attitude pouring out over the audience.

One does not know what to feel for Carrie’s mother, Margaret White (Kirsten Kunkle). You admire her desire to protect her child, but at the same time, wonder about her real motives. It seems that Margaret has been deeply hurt in life and wishes to make sure her daughter is aware of that fact. She hides this in her religious devotion and uses that and the Bible to manipulate her daughter.

Kunkle’s beautiful operatic voice marks a great contrast to the other musical styles found in the show. It helps set her character apart and establishes her as a force of her own.

The remainder of the cast is also outstanding. Many of them are in high school or college and yet display talents and abilities on par with highly seasoned performers. Vocally they are strong and, under the musical direction of Shane Jensen, blend flawlessly throughout the production. Each has a firm grasp on their unique characters and keeps it locked in. This adds to the overall believability of the show. You feel like you are there watching the events unfold.

The book and libretto for CARRIE THE MUSICAL are strong and quite refreshing. In recent years many musicals have abandoned the tried-and-true formulas of the classic musical in an effort to be different and new. On the surface, CARRIE THE MUSICAL, though not new, would appear to fall into this category. However, if you’re paying attention you will see that it is in many ways a classic musical. From the romantic love songs, to the brooding self-introspection laments, to the joyous celebratory tunes of new self-discovery, to the big production numbers, you’ll find it all in this show.

The tech in Milburn Stone Theatre’s production is not to be overlooked either. The set consists of a two-level scaffold stretching across the upstage area, with sets of stairs on each side. It serves as the upper level of the school, the rafters of the school, and sometimes Carrie’s bedroom. At the bottom of one set of steps is a set of lockers helping establish the school setting. Under the same set of steps is a small room that figures into the action as well. Along each of the sides are white vertical reveals. The front pair of reveals often receive projections to help enhance the scene. A scrim is also brought into play in the front as needed. It, too, takes the projections. Tables, desks, and a set of gym lockers help complete the basic school set. A kitchen table and chairs are brought in to establish Carrie’s house when needed.

The lighting for the show is stunning! It is generally dark, but some very well placed specials help highlight the action in key spots. Kudos to the cast for never missing a special! The colors naturally play a huge role in setting the tone of the show.

Choreography, designed by Jackie Kappus, also plays a huge role in this production.. It is high energy when called for and subtle as needed. The cast also executes this well.

Director S. Lee Lewis has put together a masterful production! He has managed to assemble an enthusiatic and highly talented cast, guide them into a cohesive unit, add amazing production values, and leave the audience both emotionally drained and emotionally fulfilled at the same time. Even if the story ultimately does not appeal to you, you can’t help but to be moved by the purity of talent on display.

If, like me, you are not familiar with the story of Carrie, this production will not be what you might expect. Despite its dark ending (no spoiler here as the picture of Carrie covered with blood on the poster clues you in), most of the show is a powerful moving story centering on teen angst and bullying. But it is also about the good and bad that exists in all of us.

Don’t miss it. It is unbelievable!. But do order tickets in advance. Milburn Stone Theatre is a good sized venue, but it was a full house the night I saw the production. And based on my experience, likely to be so its entire run.

Book by Lawrence D. Cohen
Lyrics by Dean Pitchford
Music by Michael Gore
Direction and Design by S. Lee Lewis
Music Direction by Shane Jensen
Choreography by Jackie Kappus
Projection Design by Bob Denton
Properties Design by Eyvo Johnson
October 18 – 27, 2013
Milburn Stone Theatre
Cecil College
1 Seahawk Dr.
North East, MD


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