An Unofficial Review: Carrie The Musical

Carrie The Musical
Mackay Conservatorium Of Music
Triple Threat Theatre Company

I’ve been a fan of the Stephen King novel Carrie since I was old enough to read anything above the Baby-Sitter’s Club. In fact I believe it, Gerald’s Game and Richard Laymon’s The Stake were the first ‘adult’ novels I ever read, so naturally, Carrie was also one of the first horror movies that I ever watched too, when I went through my 70’s, 80’s classic horror flick phase. I’m saying this now because though I’m still very much an amateur as far as my knowledge of musicals and productions goes, I know the book and the movie Carrie better, I wager, than most would because I’ve read the novel at least seven times and have watched the movie three times that- and the re-makes as well. I can’t read music no, but I am all over Stephen King. 

I’ll admit that my eyebrows shot up at the idea of Carrie being a musical, and I wasn’t surprised when I did some research and found out that it had been one of Broadway’s biggest flops because it cost too much to do it ‘right’ and because the score was considered to be relatively unimpressive. I’ve never seen the musical live before, but I watched it the day before I went to see Triple Threat’s production because I wanted to know what to expect and I’m glad I did because the results of that little comparison were surprising.

Truth be told, I enjoyed most of Triple Threat’s production better than I did the professional version that I saw on YouTube, mostly for the fact that Margaret White’s (Carrie’s Mother) songs sounded dreadful on the version I watched. It was just too much caterwauling I thought, and made the show seem like it dragged on and was incredibly depressing. However, I have been a big fan of Megan Mill’s voice since I first heard her sing just over a year ago so I wasn’t surprised to hear her make them her own. Her moody, bluesy voice put some serious magic into otherwise bland numbers and effectively corrected what I believed was the biggest problem with the whole show so that was some brilliant casting because I don’t think anyone else could have flipped that part like that. In the same sense, Sammie Robertson also did a great job as the gym teacher that takes it upon herself to champion Carrie, and I thought her accent was the best in the whole show, and her vocals were very strong. Both more seasoned actresses wobbled a little on some high notes, but Sammie Robertson nailed them in the reprise proving how impressive her range is and Megan’s proved time and time again that you don’t need to be a soprano to be vocally astonishing. 

That aside though, Carrie needs an incredibly talented young adult cast to carry the weight of what is very much an oppressive story, and I don’t know if there’s another regional town in the world, or at least Australia, that has the teenage star-power that Mackay does so naturally, I was very impressed with some of the lead casting choices and not shocked that they absolutely crushed it. I’ve had the pleasure of working with the lead, Emily McGrath before and I knew that she had a lot to offer, but I was amazed by how powerful her stage presence, characterisation and vocals were. From the moment she self-consciously shuffled out onto the stage she was Carrie White in every sense of the word and the songs she had to sing were not easy. Miss McGrath acted with every part of her being- from the way her hair fell over her face to the way she turned one foot under awkwardly when she sat on a chair, she was one hundred percent committed to her character and an absolute pleasure to watch- especially for a big fan of the character. Every now and then she sort of struggled to hold onto her American accent consistently, but she didn’t go for the stereotypical Yankee accent that most actors go-to either but a more regional dialect that was true to the Sissy Spacek version so props to her for that because it was a lot more difficult to annunciate. Once again, I don’t think anyone else in town could have done as good a job as Emily McGrath did.

Taylah Verri played the other lead, Sue Snell, and once again the casting was spot on because if you want a girl to play the girl next door to go out on a limb, then Taylah Verri is the one to do it. She played the part of the sheep/bully part as authentically as she did as the teenage girl full of regrets, and I believe that the moments where she was being interviewed post-tragedy under the spotlight were some of the finest acting moments in the entire show. Sue Snell is required to flit back and forth between disgusted, angry, love-struck and fearful and she did this with aplomb, and though her soprano voice started off feeling a touch self-conscious and shaky, she seemed to grow in confidence as the show went on and her duet with Tiernan McCallum on ‘You Shine’ was delightful. She didn’t rest on those laurels though, and carried that confidence right through to the end of the second act and her final solo lines gave me goosebumps, especially when paired with how utterly believable the rest of her dialogue was. I love Taylah’s sweet head voice, but I’ve got to say I can’t wait to see what happens as she develops her belt because it’s there and it’s gonna knock socks off one day. 

Tiernan McCallum is another young actor I’ve been lucky enough to work with before and I loved, loved, loved his performance as Tommy Ross. It’s been only 6 months since I last saw Tiernan in anything and yet, like so many of these kids, his stage presence has grown in leaps and bounds. From an amateur actor’s perspective it’s a lot easier to play the crazy mother or the messed-up teen head-case, but playing the straight character is bloody challenging and I loved how Tiernan expanded on Tommy’s character by making him so vulnerable and affectionate because that part could have been dull in the wrong hands. Truth be told that development is one of the few places where the musical actually is better than the book or at least the movie, and there was this really wonderful moment (unfortunately just as Tommy’s going off to certain death) where Tommy looks back at Sue and gives her this heart-melting smile as he proclaims his love and I saw a few of the younger girls in the audience swoon a bit over Tiernan then and with good reason because he was truly the all-American boy next door that every girl wants to take to the prom. Oh and that voice… that is seriously one talented kid! 

The two other leads, Georgia Sheedy and Riley Nicholas played the bullies in the cast, Chris and Billy. I loved Riley’s voice and thought that Georgia had great stage presence in addition to looking fantastic, but I couldn’t hear a lot of Georgia’s songs over the top of the band because her numbers were more quickly-paced and therefore, louder. There were a few technical issues with the mics in general so a lot of the first half got a bit drowned out, however I’ve done enough productions of my own by now to know that microphones are the devil and there’s no techie, actor or deity that can fix ‘em when they make up their mind to play up so I only mention it because it was a shame to lose Georgia’s vocals on what’s probably the catchiest song in the show, and it would have been harder for people that don’t know the story or show to follow along. This is not a criticism- I’ll readily admit that my own shows have been far worse for it. 

The ensemble were great and once again, some of the most talented kids in town were a part of that but I have to give special mention to Joe Fortescue, Zodie Bolic and Noah Taylor because their voices really stood out. I believe that the ensemble were a lot stronger in the first act than they were in the second though and that the reverse was true of the leads. The choreography they did was very cheerleader and suited the tone of the show fine, but I liked the ground work the did at the beginning a lot more than the free for all stuff at the end because that gave the dancers in the cast a real moment to shine and the focus and direction that some people need in order to do their best. The same went for the stage direction in general- the ensemble was just stronger when they had a definitive purpose for being there, and were cleared when they did not which I appreciated.

Yes the cast were definitely talented but unfortunately, there were a few snags in the production side of things, moments that a good friend of mind would describe as being ‘beige’ in comparison to everything else that detracted from the overall effect. The sets were minimalistic and that’s usually fine, I actually kind of love shows where there are no props or distracting backgrounds, but they went sort of all out as far as the White’s house went, keeping everything very creepy-house and gothic-looking, and then didn’t go to much trouble at all for the school setting, where the majority of the show is so I feel they would have fared better to keep it all more simplified or to have painted the white flats to look like lockers and had projected a school image onto the back. The tinsel curtains tossed over the white set pieces for the prom were done so carelessly that I couldn’t help but wonder why they bothered at all, and it’s a shame that one person didn’t at least sticky-tape them behind the set so they hung evenly because the effect was more annoying than anything else. The costumes were all right, but a bit too generic to be striking in any way, and I personally think the whole look would have been way more effective if they’d gone with a seventies theme that’s true to the original movie. That’s not what they did on Broadway no, but it didn’t work on Broadway anyway so why not try something else?

The visual effects used to demonstrate Carrie’s developing Telekinetic powers were very strong and effective at the start, with the dancing crucifix and shaking chair and when those tables went flying at prom and the doors slammed it was like: BAM and even made me flinch! But what most people would argue is the most potent scene of the show- when Carrie is doused in blood- was very anti climatic. I was in the front row and couldn’t see her at all, but even if I had been able to see her, they opted to mime pouring the blood over her using an animated projection that was too faded, out of proportion and ill-placed to look like anything but a cartoon gif of blood being poured over nothingness. Okay, okay I know it’s probably very difficult to pull of that kind of special effect on a stage that is not your own, but that doesn’t excuse why Carrie was positioned a good ten feet to the left of where the blood was poured, or the fact that the projection was such poor quality that I only saw it at the last second. They blacked out the scene so you couldn’t see what was happening until ta-da- she’s bloody and looked terrific once she was and the lights had come back up, but I think even pulsing red lights would have worked better than pitch blackness did because it sucked all of the tension out of the moment and went for about ten seconds longer than it ought to have. The same was true with the telekinetic moment went Carrie slammed the windows of her house shut- the projection was just so blurry that I think a lot of people only noticed because one or two others that had pointed upwards. On the other hand though, I loved the death scene at the end- the way Megan stabbed Carrie in the back was cringe-worthy and very believable.

I know that some of that is going to sound like nit-picking but I’m sorry, at the end of the day Carrie is a horror story so if you can’t get the dramatic tension going at the scariest moments you are going to take a lot of the power out of the show. That’s like doing Hairspray with a bunch of people wearing skull caps, or Singing In the Rain without tap shoes. If the projections had been better quality the fire and everything could have really wowed people but the whole revenge scene was completely dependent on the acting of the cast coupled with the finesse of the lighting crew, so thank goodness that they had cast as well as they had because Emily’s shaking with rage and the students’ deaths at that moment saved it from underwhelming, as did the band’s atmospheric music which I have to point out was spot on right through. Honestly mentioning these few details aren’t intended to be negative- I just truly believe that if a bit more effort had been put into it, the show could have been 5-star. On that five star note, the program was fantastic. They’re easy fixes too, so I hope if the production is reprised, a little bit more effort is put in to pack a weightier punch.

At the end of the day, I’m never going to associate Carrie as a story that has an anti-bullying message because it always struck me as being one about vengeance or demonstrating that two wrongs make a right, (honestly doing the right thing is the biggest mistake Sue could have made so there’s no real message there, save for a bucketload of regret) but there are enough touching songs in the score to make people care more about the characters in the musical than they would have in the book, and so the message of ‘What does It Cost To Be Kind?’ Does come through, but with a bit of a helpless undertone. That’s got nothing to do with the production company though- Stephen King wrote it to be a horror story, not a Hallmark after-school special, and I think it’s good if people took away different messages from it, mostly to think about what you would do if you could do things differently, so you know to watch out for making the same mistake next time you’re put in a position where someone else’s sense of self is put on the line thanks to your own actions. 

But irregardless of what you took away from it, the audience certainly seemed to have loved Carrie, a handful of anti-bullying campaigns profited from their association with it and I am very pleased that I went because once again the kids of Mackay knocked it out of the park so good on Triple Threat for taking such a risk by putting on this notorious production- and I sincerely hope that a lot of people truly are asking themselves what it costs to be kind right now or rather, what’s the pay-off for being unkind?

I’m sure that lovers of Andrew Lloyd Webber are going to be in for a real treat when they so Phantom Of the Opera in a few months’ time. 

The Mackay Cabaret Festival

Photo Above: Joel Bow, Lance Horne, Molly Rosetto, Mayor Greg Williamson
Photo By Leah McLean

Few people could argue that the Mackay theatre scene has undergone and overhaul in the last few years since home grown theatre aficionado, Joel Bow, whirled back into town like a cyclone of thespian energy, challenging those in the wings, in the spotlight and in the audience to try something new or perfect something old for the sake of re-kindling this town’s deeply-rooted passion for the creative arts. There isn’t a company he has not supported, an artist he hasn’t high-fived or a show that he’s missed if he could help it, so to say he deserved the crowd of people that swarmed over the Mackay Cabaret Festival this past weekend is an understatement!

Cabaret Festival in Mackay, you ask? Where? How? And most importantly: WHO to headline? But what might have seemed like an incredibly ambitious undertaking on paper was executed flawlessly by Mr Bow, who not only used the three-day festival to give local stars their chance to shine, but imported celebrated artists from Australia and the US to shine by their side, guaranteeing three nights of pure, five-star entertainment in one of Mackay’s undisputed classiest venues, The Dispensary!

Thursday night featured local quintuple-threat (she sews and directs in addition to dancing acting, and singing) Vicky Bobeldyk and US songwriter, Lance Horne as the headliners, accompanied by Caireen Holt. Vicky Bobeldyk’s show, ‘Boyka’s Back’ was the ultimate way to launch the festival because her act was not only hilarious, but clever and moving. Spinning-off from her role in the Comedy Player’s production of ‘Eurobeat’ in 2017, Boyka’s Back was a tribute to the character, Boyka, the former pole-vaulting champion from Bosnia who turned to the stage after her pole vaulting career came to an abrupt end following an indecent exposure scandal- a running monologue which was broken up by musical segues into cleverly chosen songs. Mrs Bobeldyk kept up this persona for the entirety of her slot, entertaining the audience with her fictional anecdotes and her perfectly controlled voice, but what made the performance so memorable for me was the way that she worked some of the challenges that she has recently faced in her personal life into her set, by re-wording a few choice lyrics from ‘I’ve Been To Paradise’ and ‘There Are Worse Things I Could do’ to express her feelings on the subjects of bullying and dusted dreams so articulately that I went from being in peals of laughter, to a sobbing mess, to back to laughter again by the end proving that though she may just be a local girl, she’s also one in a million. And though this wasn’t the first time I’ve been impressed by the way the accompanist, Caireen Holt, handled her part of the show, I was extra-delighted to see her get in on the fun herself a few times, and hope to hear more of her voice in addition to her playing from now on because she was adorable to watch and to listen to.

Lance Horne, Vicky Bobeldyk, Joel Bow Picture by Leah McLean

Following Boyka and a brief intermission, Joel Bow kept the bar rising by introducing a friend of his, Grammy Award Winning songwriter (yes in MACKAY!) Lance Horne who spent the next hour blowing our minds with his own set ‘Double Standards’ – a one man show that was of the highest standard. For the duration of his slot, Lance sat behind the keyboard and kept the audience hanging on to his every word as he explained how he worked his way from the renowned Juilliard to Broadway, with the help of the artists he’s worked with, such as Stephen Sondheim, Liza Minnelli, Hal Prince and Alan Cumming. As a songwriter, Lance is often called upon (and at the last moment) to ‘whip up’ something that sounds like something else but is not too much like something else and he didn’t leave any doubt in our minds as to how he manages it because the man is legitimately a musical genius. His monologue had an unscripted, rambling feel to it that was insightful, hilarious and illuminating, his fingers flew over the keys without him seeming to give it a second thought at all, and the songs he sang were eclectic mash-ups of songs we know and love and the original numbers that he has written himself which were as inspired lyrical as they were melodic. ‘Double Standards’ was billed as a one man show, but Lance invited a few local performers to sing a few numbers with him, and no one could argue that Brent Dillon and Molly Rossetto blew the audiences away, first with Brent’s rendition of the classic: ‘On The Street Where You Live’ and Molly’s performance of ‘If This Was Your Last Day On Earth.’ The former is one of my favourite songs and Brent stole my heart with his incredible tenor voice, an the latter was an original song written by Lance himself, for a musical that he is currently working on. Molly knocked the ballad out of the park, and I do not doubt that the number will be one that will earn Mr Horne another well-earned Grammy soon, so check it out on YouTube so you can say you were one of the first to hear it!

Friday night opened with Molly Rosetto’s one-woman show ‘Songbird’ accompanied by Sarah Rosekrans, and although I have heard wonderful things about it, I could not get back to the festival until after work, and so I must review her based on the clips I saw uploaded online, and on the cameos she did in Mr Horne’s show the evening before. ‘Songbird’ was a mix of hits penned and sung by Australian artists like Missy, Higgins, Kylie Minogue and Casey Chambers, and her finale number ‘Born to Try’ was an audible delight, which is high praise because that is not an easy song. However, nobody that knows Miss Rossetto would doubt her ability to pull it off, because although she’s only been in Mackay for a few years, she’s already made her mark in productions by the MMCP, Red Giraffe Theatre and Joel Bow productions. It’s a shame that I didn’t get to see her whole set, but I had a few theatre-newbie friends in the audience that night who showed up not knowing what to expect and left feeling shocked that a performer of that calibre worked as a music teacher by day, right here in our little hamlet when it’s clear that she’s got the vocal talent to make a killing as a professional singer anywhere.

The second show of the evening was Madeline Caine’s ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ And although Madeline Caine is a graduate of Mackay’s Conservatorium of Music, she’s spent her time since scorching a trail as one of Australia’s finest performers so it was great that Joel managed to get her back here for the festival. Her show was about the evolution of romantic relationships, from meeting your first love to farewelling a true love to standing by a life-long love and the family that comes with it, and like Vicky Bobeldyk she switched gears constantly, making the audience weep one moment and fall off their chairs laughing the next while Sarah Rosekrans showed us just why she’s in such demand. Madeline has a stunning soprano voice and packed more songs than anybody into the time she had, leaving the audience feeling exhausted and sated after. She got us all giggling with the songs ‘I’m A Stalker’ and ‘True Love’ but the falling off the chair came during her re-worded rendition of the My Fair Lady Classic ‘I could have Dance All Night’ because she took out the word ‘Danced’ and replaced it with a pleasured moan, making the ridiculously innocent song so erotic that I don’t think anyone in the audience will ever hear it the same way again! Madeline has a stunning soprano that’s something better heard than described, and though she used it to blow the lid off massive numbers like the one I just mentioned, she also expertly pulled it back for softer songs that moved us all to tears, like ‘Baby Mine’ and ‘I’ll Be Here’ an emotionally-wrenching song penned about 9/11, so by the time it concluded, tissues were still being wiped over faces that were grinning again.

The final night of the show opened with Kelly Cooper doing her first Cabaret performance ‘Vanilla Lace’ which was an awesome angle to come from, because it gave Kelly the chance to tell her story: one of a girl that lives a very ‘vanilla’ existence BUT one who also gets to explore her other, crazier side via the performing arts which is a story that a lot of people can relate to! Mrs Cooper was clearly nervous, but her anxiety just made her all the more endearing, and though I was not surprised with by how effortlessly she sparkled her way through an eclectic, entertaining and flawlessly delivered set list, I was pleasantly surprised and very impressed with what she had to say between songs as well, because her script was humorous, fresh and humble, especially for a first timer. And though she reached into her repertoire to prove how she slayed the audience as Galinda the Good in the MMCP’s 2017 production of Wicked by belting big numbers like: ‘I dreamed A Dream,’ she also showed how versatile she was by performing numbers from The Book Of Morman and Avenue Q and yes, I’m please to say that there was a puppet involved!

Now we get to the final performance, and although it was billed as a one man tribute to Madonna by the accomplished Australian star, Michael Griffiths, the headliner introduced his act by saying he’s not very good at sticking to pre-meditated schedules and therefore, was going to do something a bit different, and I think we all ended up being grateful that he took it in another direction because, it was a wild and crazy ride that was all the better for its spontaneity! Michael entertained us with anecdotes about his escapades in the entertainment industry while accompanying himself, as Lance Horne had, and played songs that all know and love, from artists like Aha to Peter Allen. He had a bit about 80’s pop songs that ended up playing out like a music trivia quiz/sing-a-long that had the audience as in on the act as he was, and he treated us all to a bit of insight into the song-writing process too, by demonstrating the key points in the anatomy of a pop song using Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’ as an example, wrapping the festival up with a standing ovation that was not just for him, but for the festival in general!

Thursday Night’s Audience watching: ‘Boyka’s Back’ Photo By Leah McLean

My love for the performing arts pretty much guarantees that I am always going to have more positives to say than negatives in my reviews because I’m more of a cheerleader than a critic- but ask anyone that was lucky enough to secure one of the sold-out seats to The Mackay Cabaret Festival and I’m sure that they will tell you that it was one of the best experiences of their lives, and one that would have played just as well in front of audiences in the capital cities. Perhaps not every tune was for everyone because the collective song list was just so diverse, but that’s going to happen with any show, and I know for a fact that for every song someone may have felt a disconnection with, there were eight more that hit them right in the feels, so even the most critical audiences members would be inclined to rave as I have. In fact the only thing I can complain about is after three days, my derrière hurt from sitting and my face hurt from smiling! Aside from that, the venue was first class, the performers brought their A-Game every single second, the organizational side of things was on point and the audience was so stuffed with Joel Bow supporters from almost every theatre group in town that it was like a three day party.

Bravo to Joel Bow, the cast, the crew and the sponsors for your sold-out season- I do not doubt that next year’s Mackay Cabaret Festival will be even bigger and more brilliant!