As she escorts us to our seats in preparation for a stage adaptation of a classic Stephen King horror novel, the usher at the re-jiggered version of Carrie The Musical at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (LMTPA) utters perhaps the most terrifying four words in the English language.
"Welcome to high school," she says, before departing with an added ironic "Enjoy."
Ah yes, to go back to those glorious regimented days of cliques and acne, of uncaring teachers, too-watchful parents and classmates who devoted more time and ingenuity to making your life a living hell than they did to cracking a single book. Who wouldn't want to relive those halcyon years?
Welcome to high school?
Can we hear a collective, blood curdling "No"?
"Someone who saw the show the other night told me, 'Oh my God, once it started and we got a little way in, these memories started to come back of how people picked on me in high school,'" says Carrie The Musical producer Jack W. Batman. "That's what we all strived for here. We all have it common. We may have gone to different high schools in different places at different times…"
"…But we were all the bullies or the bullied," concludes Batman's fellow producer Bruce Robert Harris.
True to the producers' words, this new version of the controversial 1988 musical directed by Brady Schwind looks to take audiences not simply back to high school, but to quite possibly the most horrific high school ever dreamed up. That would be Ewen High School, which is already plenty ghastly before 17-year-old misfit Carietta "Carrie" White (played at La Mirada by Emily Lopez) lays it and much of the surrounding town to waste.
The carnage is foreshadowed before we even reach our seats. Grouped by ticket "class" into freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior sections, audiences pass into the auditorium through a hallway filled with ruined lockers, blood-smeared graffiti, toppled flags and even a stack of tampons.
The stage itself suggests a blasted out high school gym and the 250 audience members are placed in a set of bleachers surrounding the action. Temporarily. Once the lights go down and the band lays into the opening number "In," the technical virtuosity of Stephen Gifford's set is set in motion and those who are seated in the innermost bleachers become part of the action. We go into the showers with Carrie, out again to the classroom, to Carrie's house presided over by her devoutly religious mother Margaret White (Misty Cotton) and back to school again. When Carrie attends that fateful prom in the second act, we travel along in a surprising way.
Some of the aforementioned is accomplished via a series of versatile bleacher pods that will likely become the production's hallmark if — as the producers hope — it transfers or is rebuilt for other venues. (Las Vegas has been mentioned as a city ripe for an extended sit down engagement of the show).
The scenic set-up enables cast members to spill in and out of every corner of the stage, high and low, both close to and away from the audience, which took some adjustments, according to cast members.
"You have people so close to you and you're kind of creating the space and environment you're playing in," says Lopez. "But there are also people further back in amphitheatre setting. It's kind of complicated to find the balance between reality and drama. And this story is so dramatic and so over the top. You want to live up to it."
"It's easy to slip into the cinematic zone," adds Kayla Parker who plays Carrie's classmate Sue Snell, the narrator of the musical. "It is kind of cinematic because it is so close and so intimate. We do have that freedom. At same time, it's almost set up like Greek tragedy." Since this is a story of a teen with unearthly powers, Schwind, Gifford and the technical team would need some extra visual razzmatazz. Paul Rubin (Wicked, Peter Pan) is the production's flying sequence choreographer and Lopez worked with illusionist Jim Steinmeyer, the man responsible for the Beast's transformation in Disney's Beauty and the Beast and for the magic carpet ride happening nightly in Disney's Aladdin among other feats.
Although he has worked large scale before and concedes that Carrie was a piece that "cried out for a new approach," Steinmeyer maintains that much of what audiences are witnessing nightly in La Mirada is "kind of old-fashioned conjuring. Not stage effects. Really, it's old-fashioned little gimmicky stuff."
"To me, what's interesting and what was challenging was all the stuff that people aren't reacting to," Steinmeyer continues. "It's all the 'get readies.' All the stuff has to be a kind of thing where someone's handing off to somebody who is handing it off to somebody who is getting it to the actress. It's getting ready: step by step by step."
"I am not a magician," insists Lopez, although her feats indicate otherwise. "I don't know what I'm doing, but Jim is so smart and he really knows how to explain it all to an actor."
There's also the matter of the story's blood drop. At the prom Carrie is drenched with a bucket of pig's blood, an effect that in the past has been handled via lighting. Not this time. The program credits New York-based Alcone Company for "blood products" and Lopez has two sets of microphones that need to be protected from short circuiting. She also has to take a shower at the end of every performance to wash off the ooze.
Making things even more challenging on the illusionary front, say the creators, is the production's built-in audience intimacy configuration. Three years ago, LMTPA's producing artistic director Brian Kite developed the Onstage Series for the 1,261 seat theatre, allowing shows to take place on the stage and shrinking the audience capacity to less than 300 for more intimate proximity to performances of Spring Awakening and Floyd Collins.
Schwind, Harris and Batman had originally dreamed of finding a warehouse or an airplane hangar for this new version of Carrie, but the La Mirada Onstage Series idea presented intriguing — and far less expensive — possibilities. Batman and Harris (whose credits include the Broadway productions of Clybourne Park, The Scottsboro Boys and the recent revival of Pippin) owned the Los Angeles rights to Carrie. Kite approached them about staging the musical traditionally and the producers were willing to let him have a go.
"They were generous enough to say, 'Go ahead and do a traditional production of Carrie if you want. You're welcome to it,'" recalls Kite. "Or let us tell you what we're thinking…"
That anybody would want to mess with Carrie — re-imagined or otherwise — signals a certain amount of bravery. Featuring a book by Lawrence D. Cohen, music by Michael Gore and lyrics by Dean Pitchford, the original production mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford closed after five performances on Broadway. The very title is something of a punchline with blood-drenched image of original star Linzi Hateley gracing the cover of Ken Mandelbaum's 1992 book, "Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops."
Short-lived though it was, that production has developed a cult following and the musical received new life via a 2012 Off-Broadway MCC production and cast recording that sets the action in the present, and it is this version that the La Mirada production follows.
Asked about their own attraction to Carrie, Harris and Batman reply together with the same word: "Danger."
"We climbed onto Clybourne Park. It was dangerous and we loved it," Harris says. "Bonnie & Clyde: very dangerous. The Scottsboro Boys. Jack and I like to live a little edgy. A lot of our projects are like that."
Welcome back, then, to high school and back to Carrie…with, danger, blood and plenty of illusion on the bill of fare.