In a medium frequently associated with spectacle and glamour, escapism and whimsy, where does one begin in turning horror into a believable musical theatre experience? Illini Student Musicals meet the challenge head-on this weekend with a stage production of Stephen King’s Carrie (Music by Michael Gore, Lyrics by Dean Pitchford, Book by Lawrence D. Cohen) For director Caylei Hallberg, the answer is surprisingly simple: “The blood!” she says succinctly and with a laugh, “the blood is the most important element of the entire show. That was the first thing in my mind: how are we going to dump the blood on-stage.” Perhaps she is right; the promotional images from the 1976, 2002, and 2013 film adaptations all feature a blood-soaked Carrie, and this student production follows in that tradition. When people think of this story, they think buckets of blood and carnage. And yet Carrie is not a tale of deranged murder, nor does it overindulge in the occult. Carrie is instead a story about contingency, about choices, and about how cruelty is passively enabled.
Despite the iconic nature of the title character and her religiously fanatic mother Margaret, the driving force of Carrie arguably lies with the student body. They quickly reveal themselves not to be a homogeneous wall of adolescence but a gathering of deeply insecure people. The opening chorus of “In” points to each individual’s painstaking efforts to navigate social and familial pressures. The performers provide a salient depiction of this individuality with ardent energy. They show impressive commitment to Abby Steiml’s evocative, if occasionally busy choreography, but their strongest moments come during scenes with group dialogue. Carrie includes several moments where the students must choose whether or not to show compassion, a decision that is introspective and has long reaching implications. One can see the groundwork laid out by Hallberg to ensure fidelity in each actor’s reaction. “We really tried to build this from the ground up,” she explains, “there are a lot of iconic moments, but (the student body’s) backstories are so specific to them… everybody wrote their own.” Hallberg effectively drew forth organic reactions, which tentatively join in to alienate Carrie while providing the impression that it might have gone the other way.
The bully leading the charge is Chris Hargensen, as portrayed by Riley Wilson. The actress brings an attractive singing voice to the role, but will be remembered for triumphantly portraying a terribly unlikeable person. Apart from one brief moment of vulnerability, Chris leads the assault on Carrie White with vitriolic spite. She is foiled by Sue Snell, a popular and kind-hearted girl; hers is the voice of reason and compassion. Shelbi Voss sings the part of Sue with a perfectly tuned crystalline tone, though one might find her line delivery poorly paced and overacted. The tension between Chris’ cruel example and Sue’s call for kindness is the moral heart of Carrie. Despite some promising moments at prom, the class ultimately fails to rise up and change its mode, perhaps paralyzed by each person’s insecurities. One can extrapolate that, had more of her classmates come to her defense or admonished the bullying practices, the infamous destruction need not have occurred. But indeed, Carrie is isolated by her peers, which means she has no support system to rescue her from the troubles at home.
And what troubles they are! Margaret White almost needs no introduction: a deeply religious woman with horribly distorted ideas about discipline and womanhood. A performer could easily interpret the character as a hateful pariah, but actress Sara Dolins sees it differently: “we realized there’s so much more to her.” Hallberg and Dolins did a lot of work to rehabilitate the character of Margaret and unearth motivations beyond one-dimensional zealotry. When enacting more violent modes of motherhood, the abuse is “not coming from a hatred for her daughter, it’s coming from a place of belief in what is right.” This comes across in a performance that is not so much eerie as it is resolute. Margaret moves and acts with conviction. The only hint of regret comes in a melodramatic ballad late in the second act, where the mother betrays a fear of loneliness. In this number and others Dolins sings with a warmth that may invite the audience to feel something resembling pity.
However, pity runs dry when we see how Margaret’s actions loom over her daughter. In our interview, Hallberg stressed the critical importance of finding the right person to play Carrie. She should feel pleased with the actress she cast. Emma Stone brings a convincing physicality to the role of Carrie; she effectively embodies a fragility developed from years of abuse. And yet when we catch glimpses of her psychic powers (and of course in their violent climax), Stone exudes a wicked energy with crooked but steely posture. Her singing is strong, yet versatile. She emotes desperation in “Carrie,” tenderness in the reprisal of “Dreamer in Disguise,” and optimism in “Unsuspecting Hearts.” (Nods should be given to her partners from the latter two numbers. Tommy Roynton plays Bobby with charm, and Aniliza May sells her role as Miss Gardner with vocal fireworks.) The versatility is indicative of a crucial character feature: Carrie’s emotional volatility. Her affect shifts wildly depending on the other people in the scene, and Stone adroitly conveys that mercuriality. She deserves to be in the title role.
Illini Student Musicals, with Hallberg at the helm, impressively captures the social nuances which make Carrie more than just gore. Through a commitment to reflexive acting, they effectively communicate the moral message through the question: “What does it cost to be kind?” If I have a primary criticism, it comes from a technical perspective more than an artistic one: every single person needs sharper diction. An unacceptable number of lyrics were lost from weak consonants. If they can vocally hustle to make sure they are understood, then Carrie looks to be the company’s most successful production to date.
Lincoln Hall Theater
702 S. Wright St, Urbana
November 7th through 9th, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $10 for students, $12 for general public, order online
Cover photo from Facebook event page