Playwright: music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, book by Lawrence D. Cohen. At: Bailiwick Chicago at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000; www.victorygardens.org; $40. Runs through: July 12
Back in 1974, when the notion of disenfranchised teenagers ( U.S. teenagers, anyway ) taking violent action against their peers was the stuff of fantasy-fiction, this tale of a pathologically shy adolescent girl whose uncanny mental powers exercise a terrible revenge on her oppressors was so shocking that subsequent adaptationsnotably, Brian dePalma's 1979 filmpreferred to look upon the much-abused heroine as a "demon" child in the Linda Blair mold, rather than confront the disturbing aspects of a social environment that would spawn the school massacres of today.
That's not the story that Stephen King wrote, however, nor is it the musical that Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford and Lawrence D. Cohen fashioned to offer insights into the toll exacted by bullying on both the victims and the perpetrators. It's not the Bailiwick Chicago production currently in residence at the Biograph, either. Camp fans anticipating Rocky Horror-like hijinks from an audience tarted up in prom-queen drag are advised to stay home and play with their feminine hygiene products.
For starters, the authors refuse to portray their personae as grotesque caricatures ( affirming the very prejudices they claim to deplore ), but instead extend compassion, not solely to their much-abused heroine, but to all who suffer the insecurity inflicted by a disorderly universe. Indeed, the score's opening song clearly exposes the veneer of nonchalance adopted by the teens to disguise their fear of an uncertain future, much as Carrie's mother clings to her religion as protection against betrayal by untrustworthy mortals. Even the villains are granted flashes of remorse and opportunities for reform, contradicting the plot's potential fatalism to introduce the possibility of reversal generating dramatic tension, despite its narrative structure as a surviving witness testimony following the prom-night holocaust ( deftly conjured by Greg Poljacik ).
Director Michael Driscoll's expertise at fitting song-and-dance extravaganzas to small spaces makes for a production never exceeding the proportions of its surroundings, but instead emerging a parable as intimate as its microcosmic setting. The cast, led by Callie Johnson and Katherine L. Condit, delivers vocals that redeem in expressiveness what they may lack in volume, as does the six-piece orchestra conducted by Aaron Benham, also no stranger to up-close-and-personal orchestrations. Jaded adults may scoff at the Spring Awakening-meets-Afterschool Special tone of the PowerPoint text, but given what we know now about youths undergoing stress, it's a lesson well-heeded. Bring a kid with you to explain why.