Review: Atlantis turns 'Carrie' from flop to hit

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Sep 22 2013 05:10 PM | Updated as of Sep 23 2013 10:41 PM

Mikkie Bradshaw as Carrie in the bloody prom scene of the stage musical "Carrie." Photo from the Facebook page of Atlantis Productions

MANILA -- Atlantis Productions' stage musical version of Stephen King's "Carrie" opened to a prolonged standing ovation on Friday despite its notorious reputation as one of Broadway's biggest flops when it first opened in New York in 1988.

The ecstatic audience response in Manila was a vindication for book writer Lawrence D. Cohen, who was the special guest on opening night at the RCBC Plaza in Makati, where "Carrie" will run for three weekends until October 6.

During curtain call, an obviously emotional Cohen thanked "the gifted and fearless" director Bobby Garcia and the entire production team "who have done justice and credit to 'Carrie' anywhere in the world."

Cohen, who also wrote the screenplay for the 1976 movie directed by Brian de Palma, noted that "Carrie," based on King's debut novel, "has become more resonant now than when it was written 40 years ago and when the movie came out. It's found some astonishing way, I think, to touch us and move us and, most of all, hold the mirror up and remind us what it is to be human."

"We are so lucky to have Bobby and this incredible company to remind us that 'Carrie' speaks a really important truth that we all need to stand in other people's shoes, that we need to have empathy for each other and, most of all, whoever we are and wherever we live, we are all connected," Cohen said in his speech.

The stage musical "Carrie" didn't get this kind of acceptance from either audiences or critics when it premiered in 1988 and ran for only five performances. A 2012 revival of the show, a massive reworking of the original with some entirely new songs, got a better response but its reputation has been so soaked in hatred -- Time magazine at that time even made a poll of theater critics to see if "Carrie" was indeed the worst musical of all time (it wasn't) -- such that The Hollywood Reporter advised its creators "to just embrace their battered creature for the freak that she is."

As such, it was surprising when Atlantis Productions announced that it was including "Carrie" in this year's lineup. But Garcia apparently was among those who saw something admirable about the much-maligned musical.

In a Facebook post before Friday's opening night, Garcia wrote: "25 years ago, I fell in love with this musical. And here we are opening the first international production with an amazing group of people on stage and off. Feeling like that 18-year-old who saw the show in 1988. Blessed, grateful and inspired."

"Inspired" is an apt description for Garcia's reworking of the musical. With Otto Hernandez's creepy set design of a decaying barn house, with high windows that suggests an old church and prison bars at the same time, moodily lit by Martin Esteva, "Carrie" opens silently as the cast enters the stage one by one.

Old discarded black-and-white TVs then run a home-made video of the prom a la "The Blair Witch Project" capturing the mayhem that ensued before cutting to a video of a police interrogation of a student, Sue Snell (Yannah Laurel), as she recounts the tragedy.

This interrogation frames the entire musical, which is composed of flashbacks leading to the movie's famous prom scene with Carrie drenched in pig's blood, the culmination of a series of cruel jokes played on her by her classmates at high school, which unleashes horror on her tormentors.

The real horror on display here isn't so much a teen freak with special telekinetic powers but the bullying that occurs to kids who don't fit into the popular teen mindset. Indeed, with news rife with tragic tales of bullied kids who are led to suicide, "Carrie" resonates to a modern audience who were too young -- or perhaps they were not even born yet -- when the movie spooked audiences in 1976.

Carrie (played by young actress Mikkie Bradshaw) isn't scary per se (although Bradshaw gives her a mean stare) but more of an un-cool outsider with her extreme religiosity, frumpy clothes and sullen posture. She has been raised by a righteous, religious fundamentalist mother (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo), who in shielding Carrie from sin also deprived her of a sense of normalcy.

These characterizations helped lift "Carrie" from being just a tale of paranormal revenge as it highlights more the psychodrama that has forced this tormented teen to use her psychic abilities with disastrous results. The result is a moving, engrossing dark musical that is intimately emotional yet grandly theatrical at the same time.

The prom climax was thrillingly staged with collapsing set pieces, effective visual projections and red lighting, but it was the scene after that with a blood-drenched Carrie seeking refuge with her mother that was more chilling.

Apart from the affectionate directorial handling, the performances of Bradshaw and Lauchengco-Yulo proved to be a key winning element to this staging's success. Bradshaw, in her first lead role, shows precision in her singing, making her duets with the vastly experienced Lauchengco-Yulo very powerful. Bradshaw also makes Carrie less of a weirdo to make the audience root for her.

Lauchengco-Yulo has the more difficult task with her role as the strict, nearly mad mother. It's easy to make Margaret into a monster mom, a tyrannical Christian, but the veteran actress managed to make the audience understand her character. Margaret, like Fosca in Stephen Sondheim's "Passion," which Lauchengco-Yulo also played, isn't at all likable but if handled well, can evoke some sort of pity despite her flaws.

This is what Lauchengco-Yulo achieved in "Carrie." Moreover, she is also given the play's most dramatic songs -- the terrifying "And Eve Was Weak" and the sad "When There's No One" -- which Lauchengco-Yulo turns into show-stopping numbers.

The songs, made by the tandem of Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford ("Fame," "Footloose"), are actually uneven with some overly dramatic and bombastic ensemble numbers but there are some melodic ballads here which are radio-friendly enough, like the duet "You Shine" sung with pop polish by Laurel and Markki Stroem, who also gave "Dreamer in Disguise" a laidback singer-songwriter feel.

But "Carrie" is definitely a group effort and despite some minor scenes with pops of unnecessary humor, the ensemble was, on the whole, realistic, sticking with the play's dark theme without overplaying it.

Atlantis' success with "Carrie" proves that even a musical that's been butchered on Broadway can have some sort of redemption.

"Carrie" runs at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati until October 6.