In 1974, decades before bullying became a national cause du jour, Stephen King created the issue's avenging spokesperson: Carrie, the sheltered, ungainly high schooler who begins menstruation at the wrong place and wrong time, is tormented by her classmates, learns how to move things with her mind, and, when humiliated at her prom, leaves her school's gymnasium ablaze.
You know the story, but you may not recall that horror literature's most enduring telekinetic arsonist also inspired one of Broadway's most notorious disasters. Carrie: The Musical, an idea that seems as unlikely now as it did in its 1988 unveiling, ran for just 16 previews and five critically roasted performances.
But in 2012, Carrie rose like Lazarus for another theatrical close-up, this time in a revamped Carrie: The Musical, which received a dozen award nominations. And it's this version that West Boca's Slow Burn Theatre Company has produced for its 2014-15 season opener, just in time for Halloween.
Slow Burn's version is fast-paced, engaging, and laden with neat special effects, but the show is still an imperfect hybrid of its current incarnation and its former self — and of musical-theater jubilance and King's terrifying source material. The lyrics, by Dean Pitchford, contain few surprises, and Lawrence D. Cohen's book contains even fewer scares. A love ballad, "You Shine," stops the show dead in its tracks just as act two is beginning to intensify, but it's not the only example of unwanted sentimentality in this musical. Beautiful though they may be, the score's plaintive piano and cello solos add calm when I'd rather be unnerved. A more pervasive sense of horror would better serve both the show and this production.
There are no such caveats about director Patrick Fitzwater's cast, his most unimpeachable since January's Parade. As Chris Hargensen, Carrie's chief antagonist, Cristina Flores brings complexity to her contemptuous character, offering just enough insecurity to humanize what could be a one-dimensional villain on the page. As Sue Snell, an initially cruel classmate whose moral awakening triggers most of the action in Carrie, Jessica Brooke Sanford is an effortless picture of guilt, regret, and redemption.
Playing Carrie's oppressively religious mother, Margaret, Shelley Keelor is full of outsized grandiosity, but her scenery-chewing is smartly limited to her introductory scene. The more she's onstage, the more her vulnerability punctures her character's fundamentalist hysteria and she becomes a figure every bit as tragic as her daughter — misguided, lonely, and desperate.
And as the title character, Anne Chamberlain delivers arguably her best performance yet, one that evolves from shoegazing interiority to emotional and physical transcendence; at times, she almost seems to levitate. It's a triumphant, inspiring performance that digs deep and soars high.
The technical team has effectively created a robust design with minimal resources. With no physical scene changes to work with, lighting designer Lance Blank subtly transitions between the vibrancy of a high-school gym, the ascetic prison of Carrie's home, and the harsh spotlight of an interrogation room, while strobe-light pops cleverly forecast Carrie's rage. Sean McLelland's set design is effectively ambiguous, suggesting a barn, a church, or an abandoned warehouse more than the show's literal locations.
This sense of displacement works best during a classroom scene in which students are positioned on pew-like seats across from one another rather than in one solid block. As a result, the classroom resembles a courtroom with a divided jury. Intentional or not, this dramaturgical decision reinforces the reality that high schools are indeed places of judgment, where intolerance of the Other is rampant. It shouldn't take a torched prom to put a stop to it.
Carrie: The Musical. Through November 2 at Slow Burn Theatre Company at West Boca Performing Arts Theatre, 12811 W. Glades Road, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $25 to $40. Call 866-811-4111, or visit slowburntheatre.org.