By: John Lamb, INFORUM

Moorhead – Forty years after Stephen King introduced the shy, high school senior, “Carrie” packs more of a punch than ever before.

Craig Ellingson, who directs Minnesota State University Moorhead’s production of the musical version of the story, says with the recent attention paid to bullying, audiences see “Carrie” in a new light.

“It’s very timely in a different way from when the book (1974) or original movie (’76) came out, and that is bullying is something so present in our lives,” Ellingson says. “One of the first things we did as a cast was went around in a circle and said, ‘What were the names you were called?’ Everybody had a name, something they remember being called.”

Anne Brown, top, playing the role of Carrie White’s mother, and Kate Aarness, playing Carrie, rehearse a scene from the MSUM musical “Carrie.” Dave Wallis / The Forum

Childhood teasing still stings for the college-aged cast, and even those who may have not been as ruthlessly bullied still felt moments where they didn’t fit in.

“I didn’t have a hugely dramatic childhood, but everyone goes through some form of judgment or bullying in high school. I was a theater person in a small town,” says star Kate Aarness, a sophomore from Barnesville, Minn.

The story remains the same. Carrie White, an awkward teen is mocked by classmates in school, while her religiously zealous mother punishes her at home, believing her daughter to be a sinner, then possessed once Carrie reveals she has telekinetic powers. When Carrie’s classmates push her too far, she unleashes her devastating powers.

“Once I got past how difficult it was emotionally, I’m really starting to enjoy it as an actor. It’s a really meaty role,” Aarness says.

The actress particularly likes exploring the real results of stage telekinesis.

“Having that power over them is really interesting,” she says. “Physically in the show, Carrie is doing this to them, but as actors they have to pay attention to me, to watch my movements to make sure they’re moving their bodies accordingly. That’s been interesting for me, having that attention on me, focusing on me that much.”

It’s a power that follow- ups to the original movie couldn’t control. In the past 15 years, the movie has been re-made – and panned – twice (2002 and ’13), as well as made into a sequel, 1999’s “The Rage: Carrie 2.”

Still, the biggest dud of them all was the basis for MSUM’s “Carrie.” The ’88 musical take was mercilessly jeered by critics and closed after only five performances at a loss of more than $8 million, becoming one of the most notorious flops on Broadway.

Ellingson said the 2012 off-Broadway revival pared down the blockbuster production. A handful of big numbers (like the pig-slaughtering sing-along) are gone, replaced by more introspective pieces. Similarly, the bombastic staging has been boiled down so the production focuses more on the story and not the spectacle.

So, how do they execute the story’s signature moment, when Carrie is crowned prom queen only to be humiliated by her tormentors as they bathe her in a bucket of pig’s blood, without having the musical turn into a Gallagher show?

“You have to pay homage to the iconic images associated with the film,” Ellingson says, adding that there is also concern not only for the first rows of the audience, but also the actors onstage.

“We’ve tried to make this teenage angst issue that is so common in high school and tried to make this as vicious as possible. There are several scenes where it crosses that line of what we hope people would feel comfortable with,” he says. “It’s not going to be a show you’ll walk away humming tunes from, but you’ll be entertained while you’re there.”

He hopes audience members feel some empathy with Carrie and her efforts to try and find her place not only at school, but at home.

“We all have these awkward moments in our lives and thankfully we all live through them on some level,” he says. “I think there is something relatable to almost everybody.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533