‘Carrie the Musical’ savors the sweet sound of revenge

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Erik Scanlon/Courtesy

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Once upon a time, a group of mean-spirited kids elected their whipping girl prom queen to humiliate her in public. This has happened a few times in fictional American history, but only Carrie White got the revenge every bullied kid dreamed about. This tale of horror, ostracism and coming of age is now a musical, and it’s a touching and well-crafted show. It seems odd to build a great musical around a horror story about telekinesis and a bucket of blood. “Carrie the Musical” brings the work by Stephen King into the strange realm of musical theater, and the result is a perfect prelude to Halloween.

Ray of Light, the theater company that has put together this production, set up a reception area for the audience outside of San Francisco’s Victoria Theatre. Prom pictures were offered out front with crowns for king and queen. Inside, the theater was decorated with paper lanterns and the dead-on, cheap, glittery kind of signage that goes perfectly with any American high school prom. Cast bios were offered in a block of lockers left open, complete with bubble-lettered notes and heart-strewn photos.

The play begins with an energetic ensemble number called “In” that captures the frenetic sexualized pressure of adolescence and hints at the supernatural events to come. Courtney Merrell, as Sue Snell, introduces the theme of disaster in her opening monologue. Merrell plays the hapless Snell as a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, with all the uncertainty of her identity on display.

Cristina Ann Oeschger appears as the title character and does not attempt a Sissy Spacek redux based on the iconic horror film. Oeschger’s Carrie is lovely and vulnerable, with an undercurrent of righteous anger. Her vocals are the pure cry of a feral bird, and the audience could scarcely wait for the end of her songs to explode into thunderous applause.

The secondary players present a mixed bag of talents. Nikita Burshteyn is an athletic and affable Tommy Ross with just the right edge of masculinity, but his songs suffer from the fetishy modulations of a man in love with Josh Groban. Riley Krull is a knockout, physically perfect for the role of the most popular and most heartless girl in school, Chris Hargensen. Krull is a talented dancer and was born to play the villain, but her range defeats her in most of her sung lines. She strained in her big number, “The World According to Chris,” but attempted to distract the audience from the lack of steak with a lot of sizzle.

Heather Orth, as Margaret White, is captivating. Her deft physical acting, coupled with a clear and seasoned soprano, brings the essence of Carrie’s mother to the stage. Her wounded vacillation between care and abuse proves a perfect backdrop for Carrie’s growing powers throughout both acts. The real standout of the ensemble cast is Jessica Coker, as Miss Gardner. Gardner represents the only refuge for Carrie in a school that crackles with heartbreaking meanness to the outcast girl. Coker plays a high school gym teacher with utterly authentic authority, and she supplies a stellar vocal talent to “Unsuspecting Hearts” as well as the overall chorus.

Oeschger plays Carrie with a terrible naivete until the final moments of the doomed prom, and she manages the metamorphosis of the role with great skill. The stage management and lighting make the climax utterly breathtaking in a relatively low-tech theater. No matter how well you know this story, the machinations of the ending will blow you away.

“Carrie the Musical” at the Victoria Theatre is a must-see. It will thrill you, amuse you and may dredge up powerfully uncomfortable memories of high school. Put on your pretty pink dress, and get your picture taken out front. There is no hidden bucket in the rafters, and they’re not all going to laugh at you.

Meg Elison covers literature. Contact her at [email protected]