Carrie Review: Broadway Flop Revived Off-Broadway
Decades after Carrie wreaked her revenge for being dumped on with pigs blood, “Carrie” the musical, which opens tonight at the Lucille Lortel, has a chance for its own sort of revenge for being dumped on.
The original production of the musical, based on the Stephen King story about the picked-on high school girl with supernatural powers, lasted just five performances after it opened on Broadway in May, 1988.
The show that had taken seven years and seven million dollars to get to Broadway was the target of exuberant lambasting by the critics.
Frank Rich called it a disaster, a botch, cheesy, comparing it to the explosion of the Hindenburg. “Only the absence of antlers,” he wrote perhaps most cruelly, “separates the pig murders of ‘Carrie’ from the ‘Moose Murders’ of Broadway lore.”
The main creators of the musical could not have been happy to see “Carrie” overtake Moose Murders as the most notorious (and expensive) flop in Broadway history. “The three of us did not exactly have the best time with the Broadway production,” Lawrence D. Cohen, the musical’s book writer, said recently, with the kind of understatement that was entirely missing from the show itself.
It must say something that Cohen was also the screenwriter for the far more successful 1976 film starring Sissy Spacek. Perhaps musicals are just more difficult to do. Or maybe this one never should have been attempted. In any case, after their drubbing, Cohen and the show’s composer, the aptly-named Michael Gore, and its lyricist Dean Pitchford reportedly resisted all requests to revive “Carrie” over the next couple of decades, by people who were presumably attracted by its score. They were finally won over by director Stafford Arima, who had seen the original production as a teenager and wanted to do it again for MCC Theater, properly. But how do you re-do an over-the-top flop Broadway horror musical properly? Apparently, with restraint.
I did not see “Carrie” on Broadway. (It is amazing the number of people I’ve met recently who claim to have.) But it is clear, simply from the vivid accounts of that production, that the MCC Theater version of “Carrie” scrupulously avoids most of the original howlers. There are no buckets of blood; the humiliation scene at the prom is done with red lighting instead. There is no more pig snorting and loud oinking voice-overs (oink-overs?). There are no levitating prom dresses. Until the climax, Carrie’s telekinetic powers are now displayed subtly (if you can possibly evoke the concept of subtlety to describe telekinetic powers); there is a smashed light here, a tripped bully there.
This is a “Carrie” that is toned-down, with a spare set, low-key effects, mostly underplayed performances. It is downright tasteful – and thus sure to disappoint lovers of camp and aficionados of car crashes.
I suspect that a large part of the attraction of this “Carrie” is the reputation of its predecessor. The musical is like a stroke victim who’s made an amazing recovery. You are relieved that everything is in good working order, but you wouldn’t expect her to invent dazzling new moves. “Carrie” the musical is a lesson in theatrical rehabilitation. It is no longer horrible. But there is little horror in it either. It is not completely laughable, but I wouldn’t have minded a few laughs.
It begins now with the harsh lights of an interrogation, as Sue (Christy Altomare), one of the in-crowd at the high school in Chamberlain, Maine, is asked to recount what happened on the night of May 28th — a night she survived.
With its seriousness thus established, we go back to high school, and the trials of an unpopular girl named Carrie.
To the extent that “Carrie” elicits emotion, it is largely due to the often touching performance of Molly Ranson (“Jerusalem,” “August: Osage County”) as a teenager so sheltered that she panics when she has her first menstrual period, horrified that she is bleeding. This inspires the cruelty of her classmates.
Sue is one of the exceptions, although her kind-heartedness is precisely what leads to disaster. She tells her boyfriend Tommy (Derek Klena) to invite Carrie to the prom. Other classmates, especially Chris (Jeanna De Waal), have a diabolical surprise for her at prom, one that will backfire spectacularly — although, given the under-the-top mandate, it’s not that much of a spectacle.
Carrie is a misfit because of her religious fanatic of a mother, here played by Marin Mazzie of “Next to Normal.’ As in the original, when Betty Buckley played the part, we have here a performer of exquisite voice and deep acting chops made to sing “Baby, Don’t Cry” as she stabs her with a huge knife. But this time Mazzie has the added burden of underplaying it.
The best thing that will come out of this revised “Carrie” would be a cast album; one was never made. There are 17 songs here, almost all with banal lyrics, but most with pleasing tunes. A cast recording will be “Carrie”‘s revenge.
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At Lucille Lortel Theater
Music by Michael Gore; lyrics by Dean Pitchford; book by Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King
Directed by Stafford Arima
Choreography by Matt Williams; music director and arrangements by Mary-Mitchell Campbell; orchestrations by Doug Besterman; vocal design by AnnMarie Milazzo; sets by David Zinn; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting by Kevin Adams; sound by Jonathan Deans; projections by Sven Ortel; wig design by Leah J. Loukas; fight director, Rick Sordelet; special effects by Matthew Holtzclaw.
Cast: Marin Mazzie (Margaret White), Molly Ranson (Carrie White), Christy Altomare (Sue Snell), Carmen Cusack (Lynn Gardner), Jeanna de Waal (Chris Hargensen), Derek Klena (Tommy Rgoss), Ben Thompson (Billy Nolan), Wayne Alan Wilcox (Mr. Stephens/Mr. Morton and others), Corey Boardman (George), Blair Goldberg (Norma), F. Michael Haynie (Freddy), Andy Mientus (Stokes), Elly Noble (Helen) and Jen Sese (Frieda).
Running time: two hours, 15 minutes
Ticket prices: $89. If under 30 years of age: $20
Carrie is scheduled to run through April 22
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