By Colin Douglas
Most everyone who reads or enjoys horror films has seen, or at least heard of, Carrie.
She’s the subject of Stephen King’s groundbreaking supernatural novel, his first in a long line of horror stories. His very popular novel was turned into a noteworthy 1976 film, directed by the legendary Brian DePalma and starring a young Sissy Spacek. Both book and movie tell the story of a shy, very sheltered high school girl with untapped telekinetic powers. Carrie learns she possesses this magical gift whenever angered, especially by her religious fanatic, abusive mother. When a cruel, inhumane practical joke is inflicted upon the innocent girl by her peers, Carrie unleashes her power and wreaks havoc upon everyone involved in her misery and humiliation.
Several years passed and in 1999 a schlocky sequel to this story made its way to the silver screen. Entitled The Rage: Carrie 2, the plot is virtually the same as the original, but focuses on Rachel, the telekinetic half-sister of Carrie. She, too, has a mentally ill, religiously fervent mother who strives to keep her daughter homebound and friendless. When Barbara is committed to a mental institution, Rachel goes to live with a foster family.
Rachel’s one school friend is Lisa, another high school girl who recently lost her virginity to a football player named Eric. While Lisa thinks she’s found true love, the sexual act is merely part of a sick game perpetuated by the jocks. They keep a notebook assigning points to each player, based upon his romantic conquests. When Lisa learns of their heartless diversion, she feels betrayed and commits suicide.
Soon afterward, Rachel’s dog is struck by a car. Worried that she’s about to lose her only remaining friend in this world, Rachel flags down the first driver she sees to help her. He happens to be Jesse, another of the high school football players, and the boyfriend of Tracy, the conniving captain of the cheerleaders. Jesse and Rachel soon find themselves attracted to each other and begin dating. Tracy becomes filled with jealousy, seeks revenge, employing the assistance of the other football players. When their supposed “friends” arrange for Rachel and Jesse to have a private, intimate evening alone, under Tracy’s covetous and malicious direction the romantic moment turns into a wicked setup. Mark, Brad and Eric secretly videotape the sexual encounter and play it for everyone at the party. Publicly humiliated, Rachel’s rage is ignited and she unleashes her telekinetic power, repeating Carrie’s tragic revenge upon her own enemies.
The premise of Underscore’s new offering, an “unauthorized musical parody,” is that Broadway is overlooking a lot of great material for musical comedies and dramas by ignoring the film sequel. This excellent production, with a creative book and an exciting, addictive pop/rock score and lyrics by Columbia College graduate Preston Max Allen, takes the clever form of a backers’ audition.
Actor David Kaplinsky first appears before the audience and addresses them as the show’s producer. He thanks everyone for attending and for considering donating money toward a possible, upcoming Broadway production of this show. Kaplinsky is animated and charismatic as he narrates, supplies omissions in the action, provides all the special effects of Rachel’s telekinesis and even steps in to play the minor role of Arnie, who only appears once in this story. Kaplinsky proves he’s a top notch actor/singer (“They’re All Gonna Laugh”) and a mover-and-shaker who really drives the evening, setting it in motion.
Co-directed with humor and hardihood by Rachel Elise Johnson and Isaac Loomer, with terrific musical guidance by T.J. Anderson (who also leads a well-balanced, four-piece backstage band) and musical arrangements courtesy of Patrick Sulken, this may be this fledgling company’s best production. The mission of this non-profit theatre is to foster the development of new musicals and showcase them for Chicago audiences. In a program note from Artistic Director Alex Higgin-Houser, he admits that the script sent up red flags when it first appeared on his desk, but he soon found the biting parody offered promise.
This talented cast is fantastic. The acting, the musical talent, especially in its harmonies and counter-melodies, is sophisticated and strong. The eleven actor/singer/dancers electrify the tiny Arkham (a performing space named for the asylum from the original novel). Starring in the title role, incomparable young Demi Zaino, thrills, impresses and astounds as Rachel. This gifted young triple threat was most recently seen in Underscore’s “My Name is Annie King;” but she has also impressed in BoHo Theatre, Porchlight Music Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and Marriott’s Lincolnshire, to name just a few. Zaino belts out her songs, such as “The Chosen Few,” “My Dog,” “High” and “The Destruction Again.” And not only is she an terrific singer but an accomplished actor, as well. Her face and body language convey an entire story, all of their own. She’s a beautiful, professionally trained young actress on the brink of stardom and definite talent to watch.
As Sue Snell, the lone survivor of the original story, lovely Britain Gebhardt has perfectly mastered the melodrama and exaggerated comic style of this piece. She also nails every musical number, particularly “Restless Ghosts” and her duet with Zaino, “The Legend of Carrie White,” easily the highlight of this catchy score. Annie Pfohl is simply hilarious as Rachel’s evil-obsessed mother and she makes the rafters ring with songs like “Paint Satan Out” and “Devil in a Diner.” As the bad girl cheerleading captain Tracy Campbell, Amanda Giles is spiteful and scintillating. Adding her trained voice to each company number, Ms. Campbell gets her own plaintive moment with “Love Me Too.”
As Jesse, Rachel’s handsome, first love, and the high school’s star football player, Alex Newkirk is kind, empathetic and charming. He provides Rachel with her only real love and understanding. In addition to sharing several group numbers and a duet with Rachel, Jesse gets to deliver the finale, “Tired.” The ensemble of this talented, tireless company includes Sam Button-Harrison, Carisa Gonzalez, Joseph Wesolowski, Michael Idalski and Taylor Snooks.
In addition to fine staging and musical direction, Choreographer Maggie Robinson offers poetry in motion with her spirited dance moves. Eric Luchen has fashioned a scenic design that appears makeshift, but is actually a solid, flexible environment for this story. Erik S. Barry’s moody lighting offers just the right eerie atmosphere; and costumes designed by Isaac Loomer and Rachel Elise Johnson add much to each character.
This is an especially polished offering from a relatively new storefront company, known for offering fully staged productions by promising musical theatre librettists and composers. While the shows haven’t all been gems, this musical by Preston Max Allen has a great deal to offer. It parodies the horror genre, particularly this dreadful sequel to Carrie. The show is filled with over-the-top, melodramatic characters, features a likable musical score and is overflowing with wonderful, tongue-in-cheek humor. It doesn’t hurt that the production is well-directed and superbly acted, as well. This dark musical comedy is the perfect entertainment for young adult audiences during the Halloween season.
Underscore Theatre Company presents “Carrie 2: The Rage” through November 19 at the Arkham, 4609 N. Clark St., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.