Carrie without camp
by Richard Dodds
Oh yes, there were whopping servings of unfortunately unintended camp in Carrie, the 1988 Broadway musical inspired by the Stephen King novel and Brian DePalma film of the same name. Camp, as well as head-scratching staging, bizarre design decisions, and a disco-themed slaughter of pigs. But don't go to Ray of Light Theatre's production of Carrie seeking a for-laughs facsimile of the debacle that New York Times critic Frank Rich likened to the Hindenburg disaster.
"I'm sure someone could do a hilarious sendup, but it's something we're trying to distance ourselves from," director Jason Hoover said of his production, running Oct. 4-Nov. 2 at the Victoria Theatre. "It's not played for comedy, and it's not really a horror thing, either. It's more of a suspense thriller with a really beautiful score."
Ironically, since only a relative handful of people actually saw Carrie, it is this so-bad-it's-good notoriety spreading among musical-theater fans that spurred its authors to give it another go. A considerably revised, rethought, and sobered-up version of Carrie had a limited run off-Broadway last year, and it was only then that its makers were ready for other theaters to present it.
"We've had our eye on the show for a long time, and we e-mailed [licensing company] Rodgers and Hammerstein to let us know the moment it became available," said Hoover, who became Ray of Light's artistic director in 2012 after six years with the company. "It really fits the aesthetic of the kind of darker, edgier musicals in a rock vein that Ray of Light produces." Previous productions in the two-show seasons have included Tommy, The Full Monty, Jerry Springer: The Opera, and for the past three years, an annual Sondheim musical.
Hoover didn't see the 1988 Carrie, but a close friend who did has shared memories that are not to be repeated on stage per a statement from librettist Lawrence D. Cohen (who also penned the movie) and songwriters Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford. The trio states, "We were never interested in seeing our show done in a campy or kitschy style. Treating the material seriously, however, doesn't mean that it should be performed without humor, excitement, or fun; on the contrary, it absolutely needs these elements."
As Hoover sees it, "This is a real, relatable tale in its themes of bullying and not fitting in and just everything that goes on with the fraught high school experience. Everyone already knows the climactic scene of the movie, but we're still hoping to get people to sit on the edges of their seats."
Most of the appropriately youthful cast of 20 portray students, and many are first-timers with Ray of Light. That's the case with Cristina Ann Oeschger, a junior at Carlmont High School, who has the title role. Carrie arrives at her new school untutored in ways that could help her integrate into teen society, finding herself instead a consensus figure for mockery. A Bible-thumping mother (Heather Orth) who tells Carrie her first menstrual blood is a sign of her sin has not been much help in socializing her daughter, who eventually plans to go the prom despite the further damnation that her mother foresees. And Carrie also has this little quirk called telekinesis that comes in handy when a cruel prom prank supercharges her powers.
Ray of Light cast members receive stipends for their work, while the musicians and those designing sets, costumes, lighting, and sound are paid a salary. One group that makes no money is the six core members of Ray of Light. "We all have day jobs so we don't necessarily need theater to be our main provider," Hoover said. "What we really enjoy is being able to sit in the back of the house on opening night and see what we've been able to provide, not only for our audiences, but for the actors and designers in the city looking for new and cutting-edge work."
Ray of Light productions are often elaborate, large-scale affairs, but the troupe has managed to keep ticket prices relatively low. The volunteer management and a non-profit status pulling in donors have helped cap costs. What Hoover says the actors receive in addition to a stipend "is the most professional experience" outside of the city's major regional theaters that they can get.
But neither do Hoover and his colleagues try to push away the term "community theater," preferring instead to embrace it. "Sometimes people hear 'community theater' and think 'not good theater.' I see it as theater by this wonderful community for this wonderful community."
And a large part of that community, and ROL's audiences, has LGBT attached to it, although Hoover said no specific tags could really represent Ray of Light. "In San Francisco, it's come one, come all. We do have a large LGBT contingent on the staff, and we do musical nights at Martuni's and the Edge, and some of the musicals we do tend to lead in a more LGBT direction," he said. "I don't want to give anything away, but when you hear what we're talking about doing next year could really connect in that direction."