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NEW YORK – The 1988 production of Carrie, the musical based on Stephen King’s novel about a high school misfit with telekinetic powers, was a critical and commercial bloodbath that became the benchmark for spectacular Broadway failure. While it ran for 16 previews and just five post-opening performances, it became something of an urban legend. If every theater insider who claims to have seen the notorious fiasco had actually been there, the show would have run for a year or more.
Up to now, those of us not around to view the wreckage firsthand have had to settle for poor-quality bootleg clips on YouTube. But the original creative team has reunited under new director Stafford Arima to present a stripped-down, heavily revised version Off Broadway. The makeover aims to rescue Carrie from the scrap heap of musical-theater folly, paring away the camp excess to tell an earnest story of adolescent ostracism and cruelty. But those serious intentions have yielded a muted reincarnation that’s neither fish nor fowl.
After the stinging experience of Broadway, where Carrie was directed with a mix of operatic bombast and ‘80s vulgarity by Terry Hands of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the show was pulled from circulation despite countless rights requests. Composer Michael Gore (who wrote the original songs for Fame), lyricist Dean Pitchford (the screenwriter of Footloose) and book writer Lawrence D. Cohen (who also scripted Brian De Palma’s 1976 high-school gothic screen adaptation) were coaxed by Arima to release their bloodied baby from seclusion.
A number of songs have been jettisoned – including the legendary Act II opener, “Out for Blood,” with its chant of “Kill the pig, pig, pig,” accompanied by the alarmed oinks of unseen livestock – and new tunes added. Also gone is the slutty aerobics choreography from opening number “In,” replaced by Matt Williams’ generic Spring Awakening-influenced agita. It’s more in keeping with the theme of oppressive teen conformity, if not as entertaining. In a half-baked attempt to tap into the current conversation on bullying, token references have been imposed to contemporize the story.
But the inescapable impression remains that Carrie was never meant to be a musical – certainly not one with this unmemorable score and literal-minded, on-the-nose lyrics. The Goth-chic black prom corsage bangles available at the merchandise stand suggest some element of subversiveness, but what’s onstage is merely innocuous. In an effort to make the show connect with awkward-age teens, it’s been watered down and robbed of all the distinctive qualities that made it “terrifyingly lyrical” onscreen (in the words of Pauline Kael) and ludicrously lurid on Broadway. It’s prime exploitation material treated as intense psychodrama.
What made the central character compelling in King’s novel and De Palma’s film was that the other kids didn’t just hate Carrie White because she was different. They were creeped out by her. She also was an unwelcome reminder of their own insecurities. Through no fault of Molly Ranson, the performer playing the title role, Carrie here becomes just a small-town outsider with an unhip wardrobe, lousy social skills and an inner resentment that spews forth in overwrought power ballads. Her telekinesis is almost an afterthought until the prom-pocalypse, when a bucket of pig’s blood gets dumped on her head, unleashing mayhem.
Likewise, Carrie’s mother, Margaret (Marin Mazzie), has been tamed from a hellfire-spouting, lust-tormented crazy woman to an over-protective fundamentalist who wants her daughter to remain a child, as much to soothe her own loneliness as to shield the girl from sin.
Even while thundering through the Biblical damnation of “And Eve Was Weak” (hands down best menstruation number ever from a Broadway musical), Mazzie is directed to avoid making Margaret a monster. Instead, she’s almost harmless, lacking the danger of Piper Laurie’s magnificent nutjob in the movie. (“He took me with the smell of the roadhouse whiskey on his breath, and I liked it,” was one of her more indelible moments.) The stage Margaret does get the show’s best song, “When There’s No One,” which the gifted Mazzie mines for emotional depth. But as a dark force, feeding Carrie’s paranormal retaliation, she’s ineffectual.
Where King’s novel framed the account of the prom-night massacre as a psychological case study, Cohen here intercuts the action with good girl Sue Snell (Christy Altomare) in a police interrogation scenario out of Law & Order. Sue is played capably by Altomare, but like the other kids in the under-populated cast, she’s a cookie-cutter teen who doesn’t make much of an impression.
Measured against their movie counterparts these characters are pallid indeed. De Palma had mischievous fun playing with screen archetypes. Amy Irving’s Sue was the noble-souled smart girl willing to sacrifice popularity to obey her conscience; William Katt’s Tommy Ross was the sensitive jock, his sun-bleached ‘fro glowing like a halo; Nancy Allen’s Chris was the quintessential morally unencumbered mean girl, snarling “I hate Carrie White” while using her oral skills to enslave John Travolta’s snickering dope Billy Nolan to her cause. There was good reason to invest in both the tragedy and retribution of these characters. Onstage, uber-bitch Chris (Jeanna de Waal) and moronic Billy (Ben Thompson) make especially dull villains.
Leaving aside the impossible assignment of competing with Sissy Spacek’s iconic take on the role, Ranson has affecting moments, notably with sympathetic gym teacher Ms. Gardner (Carmen Cusack), or when Carrie triumphantly silences her mother and sits down to a celebratory slice of pie.
Working on designer David Zinn’s minimalist set, Arima occasionally makes efficient use of Kevin Adams’ atmospheric lighting, Jonathan Deans’ soundscape and Sven Ortel’s projections, particularly in the climactic prom scene. But there’s a general shortage of invention to the stagecraft that further neglects the material’s roots in horror.
Could Carrie ever work as a serious musical? Hard to say. But the impression forms while watching it that Gore, Pitchford and Cohen would be well-advised at this point just to embrace their battered creature for the freak that she is. Should they choose to forego the interventions and instead liberate the original show for licensing, they might have a parody vehicle far more captivating to audiences than this timid resurrection.
Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York (runs through April 22)
Cast: Marin Mazzie, Molly Ranson, Christy Altomare, Carmen Cusack, Jeanna de Waal, Derek Klena, Ben Thompson, Wayne Alan Wilcox, Corey Boardman, Blair Goldberg, F. Michael Haynie, Andy Mientus, Elly Noble, Jen Sese
Director: Stafford Arima
Music: Michael Gore
Lyrics: Dean Pitchford
Book: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Sound designer: Jonathan Deans
Projection designer: Sven Ortel
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Vocal design: AnnMarie Milazzo
Music direction/arrangements: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Choreographer: Matt Williams
Presented by MCC Theater, by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation
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