Theater can be many things – comforting, challenging, even confounding – but I prefer it when it's dangerous. Producer-director Derek Critzer shares that sentiment: "I love weird, I love edgy, I love the punk-y," the founder of Clandestine Arts recently told me. His attraction to the extreme has been demonstrated in unconventional stagings of Rent, Aida and Sweeney Todd (the last featuring RuPaul's Drag Race finalist Ginger Minj as Mrs. Lovett), but Critzer's latest musical mounting is easily his riskiest yet.
Critzer wasn't yet born when Carrie: The Musical made its brief bow on Broadway, becoming the benchmark by which big-budget failures are judged. The legendary flop garnered a cult following, and though a 2012 off-Broadway revival was short-lived, 2015 productions in London and Los Angeles were well-received. Critzer attended the 2012 version, and has brought the latest revised script from L.A. to Orlando for its area premiere.
Adapted for the stage by Lawrence D. Cohen (screenwriter of the 1976 Brian DePalma film), with songs by Michael Gore (Fame, Camp) and Dean Pitchford (Footloose), Carrie's plot is mostly faithful to Stephen King's novel. Timid teen Carrie White (Dorothy Christopher), whose fanatically religious mother, Margaret (Wendy Starkand), has sheltered her from the facts of life, freaks out when she gets her first menstrual period in the gymnasium shower and is mercilessly mocked by her peers, led by mean girl Chris (Kayla Alvarez) and her best friend, Sue (Jasmine Forsberg). Sue feels guilty and gets her nice-guy boyfriend, Tommy (Luis Gabriel Diaz), to ask Carrie to prom as an apology, unaware that Chris and her douche-bro BF, Billy (Josh Woodbury), have plotted a vicious prank. When Carrie finally unleashes her latent telekinetic talents on her tormenters, no one gets the rental deposit back on their tux.
This risky story straddles the genres of Gothic horror and the Hallmark Channel, and there's nothing conservative about its technical demands. Clandestine Arts is certainly stretching the capabilities of ME Theatre, a converted warehouse off OBT in a neighborhood populated by more prostitutes than theater patrons; I got my desired dose of danger wondering if my car would still be around after the show. Inside the intimate dance-centric studio, Critzer's and Tom Limbacher's multilevel set – which seems cobbled together from blood-splattered driftwood, with little concern for safety railings – inspires another wave of apprehension; terrifyingly tall platforms are Clandestine's signature design element.
Once the show starts, the first thing you notice is the yeoman's job performed by music director Timothy D. Turner, who milks some fantastic many-layered harmonies from the massive chorus while simultaneously serving as a one-man pit band. The next arresting element is Christopher's star turn in the title role; her huge, haunted eyes are more Chloë Grace Moretz than Sissy Spacek, and her marvelously flexible voice nicely tracks her transformation from wilting wallflower to avenging angel. Each time Christopher duets with Starkand – who effectively sells Margaret's insanity through her intense singing, if not her acting – or Natalie Doliner as sympathetic gym teacher Miss Gardner, the show soars. Forsberg is also strong as Sue, who acts as an inconsistent narrator through a flashback framing story awkwardly added for the play.
In the days leading up to opening, Critzer told me his production faced calamities of Biblical proportion, including a hard drive crash that wiped out all the video projections, an insect infestation of the blood-soaked wigs, and a gallbladder attack for co-director Sylvia Viles. ("I'm solid on the vision, but when it comes to detail and character work, I miss a lot of it," Critzer told me, explaining their partnership. "I blocked the show and set the vision, and then she stepped in and worked it from there.")
While I admire their pluck in overcoming obstacles, the compromises required to mount this epic show on a shoestring budget ($9,000, including rights and space rental) took a toll. Moving lights create some eye-catching effects, but distract every time they shift positions, and scene transitions are community-theater clumsy. The ensemble is uneven and oversized, constantly crowding the stage and making Steven Johnson's choreography look like little more than flailing arms. Most crucially, the spotty special effects are neither realistic enough nor abstract enough to satisfyingly support the supernatural climax; instead of being cathartically visceral, the violence is cheesy and confusing. Even without the above, nothing can fix the fact that the show is too long, with too many meh midtempo ballads and too much focus on bland secondary characters.
When you do dangerous theater, sometimes you get burned, and I can't say I came away from Carrie converted to its fandom. But if Critzer and company are punching above their weight class, and getting TKO'ed in the process, at least they are stepping into the ring instead of playing it safe.