April 28, 2012

The Latest Revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" Takes a Ride on the Darker Side

Is any American play better known or more beloved than Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire?  Even the most casual theatergoers have heard of Stanley's “Stella” cri de couer and know that the play’s ill-fated heroine Blanche has always depended on the kindness of strangers. Streetcar has been revived on Broadway eight times since its debut in 1947 (compared to four times for Our Town and five, including the current revival, for Death of A Salesman, its two closest rivals for the title of The Great American Play).

The original production won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and made a star of the 23-year-old Marlon Brando, whose performance almost single-handedly changed American acting. Now, Streetcar is back again at the Broadhurst Theatre but this time with a multi-racial cast.

The guiding force behind the new production is Stephen C. Byrd, the investment banker-turned-producer who also brought an all-black version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Broadway in 2008. Byrd is reported to have considered a Broadway transfer for the 2009 Cate Blanchett production of Streetcar that played at BAM but, instead, he has resorted to his old formula: take a brand-name play, cast it with great-looking black and Hispanic actors who have developed followings in the movies or on TV, mix in a stage vet or two for credibility and recruit a woman to direct. 

This time out, the lead actors who play Streetcar's Blanche Du Bois, one of Williams' archetypal fading southern belles holding fast to delusions of grandeur, and Stanley Kowalski, her crude-acting but at heart insecure brother-in-law, are the statuesque beauty Nicole Ari Parker from the Showtime series “Soul Food” and the hunky Blair Underwood, who got his start on NBC’s “L.A. Law” and has shown up in many series over the past 20 years including “Sex and the City,” “In Treatment” and most recently “The Event,” in which he played the president of the United States.  

Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi in Rent, brings the stage cred as Stella, torn between the highfaultin dreams of her sister Blanche and the earthy—and sexyrealities that her husband Stanley offers. Actors of color rarely get to play iconic roles like Blanche, Stanley and Stella, at least not in major venues or outside of Shakespeare in the Park productions. But that’s beginning to change.

In addition to Byrd’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which starred hunky Terrence Howard and Tony-winners Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad and James Earl Jones--click here to read my review) Charles Dutton spearheaded an all-black production of Death of A Salesman at the Yale Repertory Theatre three years ago (click here to read my review of it) and even the Royal Shakespeare Company recently announced that it will contribute an all-black version of Julius Caesar to this summer’s World Shakespeare Festival in Britain.

It’s nice to see good actors getting a chance at great parts, but unless an actor is as preternaturally gifted as Brando was, it can take time and a lot of experience on the boards to develop the chops to carry off roles like these and the results in the current production of Streetcar are mixed. 

Underwood is now 47, a little old to be playing Stanley (the Polish surname has been dropped for this production) but he’s in great T-shirt-wearing shape. Women in the audience at the performance my sister Joanne and I attended gasped when he took it off, revealing six-pack abs that a 20-year-old would envy (click here to see an interview with him).

And Underwood steps up for the big showy scenes in which Stanley bellows plaintively for his wife to return to him after having abused her and “clears the table” after another fight with Stella and Blanche. But Underwood is still working to show the quieter, underlying fears that drive Stanley into these rages.

Similarly Parker’s Blanche is nowhere near the fragile creature that actors like Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh portrayed. Parker’s Blanche may be down but she’s not out.  She’s a survivor.   

But because Parker’s commitment to this vision of the character is so thorough, her take on the role pretty much works, even though the "depending on the kindness of strangers" line comes off as ironic since it’s clear that this Blanche has always depended on herself and is likely to continue doing so. 

Director Emily Mann accommodates the ethnicity of her actors by subtly underscoring the tensions between African-Americans with light skin and those with darker skin. And she adds a wordless scene in which the nameless neighbors enact a New Orleans-style funeral, complete with jazz music (supplied by Terence Blanchard) and dancing.

Blanchard’s music, which is also used between scenes, calls too much attention to itself and the dancing is superfluous but it’s a real treat to get to see the great Carmen de Lavallade, now 81, sashay across the stage with the elegant sexiness of a woman a quarter of her age.  

Streetcar has been playing to audiences that are only about two-thirds full. And so far, it hasn’t fared well with awards nominations, although that may change when the Tony nominations are announced on Tuesday morning.

I can’t say I’m surprised by any of this.  I liked what I saw onstage at the Broadhurst well enough but I don’t think the play would be as well known or as beloved, if this were the first production that had ever been seen.

April 25, 2012

Why I'm Saying Boo, Boo, Boo to "Ghost"

A lot of hard work goes into bringing a Broadway show to the stage. So every time I write about one, I try to remember all the years of study, the hours of rehearsal, the dreams of glory and the realities of having to make a living for the people both onstage and behind the scenes. Which means that I take no pleasure in saying this but I can’t remember when I have disliked a show as much as I dislike Ghost, The Musical.

This musical version of the 1990 movie that won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar for her performance as a sham psychic who finds that she actually can speak to the dead opened on Monday night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. But, once the theater gods stop rolling in their graves, it probably won’t be there long.

The film, which also starred Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze as lovers who are wrenched onto opposite sides of the life/death divide after he is killed during a botched mugging, was a big hit.  And I recall having a good schmaltzy time when I saw it.  But I had my doubts about how its tricky mix of romance, humor and mysticism would transfer to the stage. 

My sister Joanne (always up for a new rock-flavored musical) and I saw Ghost on the day after its director Matthew Warchus won the Olivier for his work on Matilda, the critic and crowd-pleasing musical that is due to transfer from London to Broadway early next year, and so my optimism about Ghost had ratcheted up a few notches.

It plummeted less than 10 minutes into the show.  For starters, the hyperkinetic video images (racing subway trains, gigunda images of the lovers) that Hugh Vanstone put together literally made me nauseous—no joke; I checked my row to see which direction I should take if I had to make a dash for the ladies room. I forestalled the exodus by closing my eyes periodically to keep out the bombardment of flashing images.

The sound is just as bad. The challenge for Bobby Aitken and his sound design team was to come up with a scheme that would not only allow the audience to hear the lyrics and orchestrations clearly but that would signal the supernatural events in the show. What they came up with are sounds as tinny as those coming from one of those $9.99 tape recorders that hang behind the cash registers at drug stores.

On the other hand, the sound quality is not as great a loss as it would have been had David Stewart and Glen Ballard’s score been memorable (click here to read an interview with them). The only song that sticks is a carryover from the film, the old R&B classic “Unchained Melody.”

Ashley Wallen’s choreography isn’t as bad as the other stuff, but too many of the dance numbers make no sense. Why, for example, do people dance with umbrellas in the living room of the couple’s Brooklyn loft? 

The illusions that special effects wizard Paul Kieve has created, assisted by Jon Driscoll's shrewd lighting, fare better, although they’re not all as smooth as one might expect. In fact they broke down at a critics' performance a few nights after Joanne and I saw the show.

And don’t even get me started on the way Ghost treats blacks and Hispanics.  I turned in my membership with the PC brigade years ago and I know that Oda Mae Brown, the character Goldberg played, was a flamboyant con artist but Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for the movie, has pushed the book for the musical deep into the offensive zone. 

Memo to Rubin: Jokes that casually define Hispanics as congenital thieves are not funny.  Meanwhile, a gospel sequence is not only hackneyed but adds insult to that injury by being gratuitous.

The one positive thing I can say is that everybody in the cast works hard, even though they’ve been dissed by the producers who fail to put the names of even the leads on the title page of the show’s Playbill. 

Those leads are Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy, who exhibit some nice chemistry as the doomed lovers, sing well and are—particularly him—very  easy on the eyes. But no one works harder than Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who steps into Whoopi’s shoes as Oda Mae.

Yet Warchus’ direction and Rob Howell’s intentionally ugly costumes turn Randolph, a Yale-trained actor who has a strong voice and a full figure, into the stereotypical musical mammy that pops up in far too many Broadway shows (click here to read my review on Lysistrata Jones).  Shouldn’t someone as gifted as Warchus have been able to come up with something besides this old cliché?

As I said, I didn’t like this show.  My sister Joanne was more forgiving.  But only slightly.  “How soon do you think it’s going to close?” she asked as we walked up Eighth Avenue for a late dinner at Pigalle, the bistro on the corner of 48th Street where the food is far better than its tourist-trap appearance might suggest. 

“They’ll probably hang on with the hope that they’ll get some Tony nominations,” I said.  “Ah,” said Joanne, shaking her head.  “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

April 18, 2012

"Regrets" is Stuck in the Past

The main image on the cover of the Playbill for Regrets, the new drama playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club through the end of the month, is of a smiling All-American family, circa 1954.  It’s meant to be a joke. For Matt Charman’s play, which is set in that year, is about a Nevada vacation camp where men live just long enough to meet the residency requirement that will allow them to get one of that state’s relatively quickie divorces. 

If only that sense of irony had extended to the play itself. For Regrets is as old-fashioned as any play you might have seen on Broadway at mid-century. And, alas, I don't mean that in a good way.

Its characters are a mix of the off-the-rack clichés that once populated WWII movies—the macho bully, always trying to prove his manhood; the nerdy Jewish guy from New York; the good-looking but callow kid; and the principled loner whom everyone respects but no one truly knows. 

There’s also a sweet-faced hooker, a jut-jawed FBI agent, and, in a nod to the socially-conscious liberalism that marked such Truman-era movies as “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Pinky,” a black character struggling to maintain her decency in the face of both casual and authorized racism.

The equally formulaic plot is triggered by the FBI guy’s arrival and assertion that one of the residents is a communist. What follows is the way in which the others respond to the news. At some point, each character gets the chance to proclaim his or her view of the America Dream. 

Charman, a rising British playwright, has said that he wanted Regrets to evoke "the dramatic world of the '50s," in both form and content. (Click here to read an interview with him). This kind of square-all-the-corners dramaturgy might be entertaining when an old work is revived or a new one takes a revisionist look at the era as was done with the 2002 film "Far From Heaven," which is now being turned into a musical that will debut at the Williamstown Festival this summer.  But here it just seems kind of hokey and passé.  

More imaginative direction might have helped but Carolyn Cantor stages Regrets in a stolid, straightforward way that only underscores the play's creakiness. Still, as is usually the case, the acting is first-rate. There are no marquee names in the seven-member cast but that allows some actors who usually get bit parts to move center stage. 

And they make the most of it, particularly the always-reliable Brian Hutchison as the loner and Adriane Lenox, who won a Tony for playing the mother in Doubt, as the black woman who runs the camp. And Ansel Elgort, a senior at Manhattan’s famed performing-arts Fiorello LaGuardia High School, also does nicely in his professional debut as the kid.

My regret is that they weren’t all in a more satisfying play.

April 14, 2012

Is "End of the Rainbow" the End for Judy?

Movies and plays in which actors impersonate more famous celebrities aren’t my favorite form of entertainment. And yet I had really looked forward to seeing End of the Rainbow, the new musical drama in which the British actress Tracie Bennett portrays Judy Garland. 

Now, having the seen the show, which opened at the Belasco Theatre last week, I’m still not crazy about these kinds of shows but I’m glad I saw this one.  That’s because Bennett is giving the kind of leave-your-heart-on-the-stage performance that even Garland might applaud.

Like most people my age, I first fell for Garland after seeing the “Wizard of Oz” and the old let’s-put-on-a-show movies that she did with Mickey Rooney on TV. But I really got hooked on Garland with her performance in “A Star is Born,” one of her many mid-career comebacks, and then later by Gerald Clarke’s ironically-titled biography, “Get Happy.”

It isn’t difficult to find drama in Garland’s life story which is chocked full with more battles with booze, pills, bad romances and poor self-esteem than a file cabinet full of case histories at the Betty Ford Clinic.

British playwright Peter Quilter, who’s made a career out of writing back-stage stories and big juicy parts for female actors, focuses on the events surrounding Garland’s final comeback attempt at a London nightclub and her final love relationship with Mickey Deans, the New Jersey-born disco club manager who would become her fifth husband just three months before her death from an overdose in 1969 (click here to read a poignant account of their wedding). 

But Quilter’s main challenges in End of the Rainbow are (1) to give enough background information without getting bogged down in exposition or boring the people who already know the back story (at which he does a fair enough job) and (2) to provide a reason beyond voyeurism for theatergoers, particularly those not so well acquainted with Garland’s sad tale, to see the show (at which he’s far less successful). 

That shifts a lot of weight onto the performers. As anyone who’s seen a drag show will tell you, it isn’t difficult to find Garland impersonators. But her manic energy, distinctive verbal tics (the tremulous voice and breathy phrasing) and flamboyant mannerisms (the outstretched arm and thrown back head) have been cat nip for more serious actors too.

Judy Davis won an Emmy for the 2001 TV biopic “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” and Anne Hathaway is currently shopping a new big screen biopic based on Clarke’s book.  Meanwhile, the Aussie star Caroline O’Connor won the Helpmann Award (the Australian Tony) for End of the Rainbow when it premiered in Sydney back in 2005. Now Bennett, who got an Olivier nomination for the London production, looks to be a serious contender for a Tony.

Although she doesn’t really look like Garland, isn’t as magnetically charismatic (who is?) and isn't as soulful a singer (although she does a good job of performing some of Garland’s signature tunes, especially an plaintive version of “The Man That Got Away”) Bennett is terrific when it comes to portraying the star’s desperate neediness, maddening stubbornness, and endearing  ability to laugh at herself. 

Bennett is a dynamo onstage and, like Garland, she seems willing to do anything to make you love her. According to the New York Post, Bennett is even playing hostess at a bar that’s been set up backstage to entertain visiting celebrities after the show (click here to read the article). 

But this isn't entirely a one-woman affair. There is also marvelous support from the always-terrific Michael Cumpsty, who plays Anthony, a fictional gay pianist who accompanies the singer during the London engagement and yearns to rescue her. Cumpsty’s portrayal of a gay man of a certain age (and of a certain time) rings true, as does the aching regret he brings to Anthony's awareness that won’t be able to save Garland from herself.

Less successful is Tom Pelphrey’s Deans. People have debated for years whether Deans, who was 12 years younger and light years less-well known than Garland, really loved the star or was just using her—and about the role he played in her final fall off the wagon. The ambiguity is one that an actor like a younger Cumpsty would have used to fuel a rich, multi-dimensioned character but Pelphrey’s Mickey simply comes across as a bland pretty boy. 

When you add it all up, it’s hard to tell how well this show will do. There were far more empty seats in the house than I had expected the night my husband K and I saw End of the Rainbow. And gauging by the grosses, the tickets that are being sold are deeply discounted. 

There was a time when Garland’s deep fan base in the gay community might have kept the show going. But according to first-person articles in the New York Times  (click here) and New York Magazine (and here), younger gays have turned to younger icons. And so, this really may be Judy’s final comeback.

April 11, 2012

“The Big Meal” is a Savory Treat

It’s becoming Sam Gold’s world. And we theater lovers will just have to content ourselves with living in it.  Which is fine with me. For over the last three years, Gold has surfaced as one of the most gifted young directors in the business (click here to read a profile of him). 

He’s particularly adept at working with new plays, as he showed in his brilliant staging of Annie Baker’s circle, mirror, transformation back in 2009, and as he shows again with Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, which just extended its run at Playwrights Horizons through April 22.

I don’t want to oversell Gold but he could be his generation’s Elia Kazan, the go-to-guy for bright young playwrights who are looking for an empathetic helmsman to guide their work from the page to the stage, as Kazan did for the early plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. 

Gold’s navigations aren't always successful. He was unable to rescue Zoe Kazan’s We Are Here last fall (click here to see my review) and I thought he ran completely aground with the Roundabout Theatre's revival of Look Back in Anger that closed last weekend (click here for my review of that one).  But Gold is now firmly back on course with The Big Meal.

LeFranc’s play channels Thornton Wilder’s streamlined meditations on American life in Our Town and The Long Christmas Dinner. The Big Meal tracks an ordinary couple, Sam and Nicole, through the ups and downs of their nearly 60-year relationship. 

The revelations in The Big Meal—the fleetness of time, the primacy of family—aren’t new but LeFranc brings two fresh conceits to the table.  First, he tells the story entirely through the major meals that mark the couple's life—their meeting in a restaurant and the subsequent wedding dinners, birthday meals, funeral luncheons. 

The second conceit is to have a quartet of actors play the couple at different stages of their life and play all of their relatives—from infants to old folks—as well. And it is here that Gold’s knack for creative staging proves invaluable. 

The challenge in The Big Meal is to keep the audience aware of the quick time changes and split-second transformations as the actors assume different roles. In one scene, for example, David Wilson Barnes plays Sam as a young father dealing with a rambunctious son then, just a few minutes later, he plays the now-grown-up son, while the older actor Tom Bloom becomes Sam. 

You have to pay close attention to keep up with all the changes but Gold subtly directs the focus where it needs to be. The Big Meal is only 90 minutes long but it’s packed with lots of laughs and some tear-inducing moments as well. I dare anyone to see it without identifying with the joys and disappointments of at least one of those meals.

It helps that the cast—Bloom and Anita Gillette who play the older characters, Barnes and Jennifer Mudge who portray them in middle age, Cameron Scoggins and Phoebe Strole who play them as young people, Griffin Birney and Rachel Resheff who take on the kid roles, and Molly Ward who is the ubiquitous, and often unwelcome, server at all the family gatherings—is so uniformly terrific.

David Zinn’s costumes and set design are smartly minimal—the actors push tables and chairs together and pull them apart as needed—and Mark Barton’s nimble lighting and Leah Gelpe’s apt sound design help to anchor each distinctive phase. 

Still it’s the words and the direction that have to do the heavy lifting of the storytelling. Gold employs some trendy theatrical conventions (the actors stay on stage even when they’re not in scenes and some real food is served and consumed) but everything he does serves a purpose, illuminates LeFranc’s work and, often, underscores its poignancy.

Hollywood has already caught on to Gold and the big talent agency UTA has signed him up. But he isn’t abandoning the theater yet.  In June, Gold is scheduled to direct a new version of Uncle Vanya that’s been adapted by Annie Baker and that will star Reed Birney.  I thought I'd had my fill of Chekhov for a while but this does sounds delicious.   

April 7, 2012

The Latter-Day Resurrections of "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar"

Here’s a question for the Baby Boomers among you:  was the substance you abused in your youth more likely to be speed or hashish?

I ask because the answer could determine which of the two Gospels-inspired rock musicals from the ‘70s you might prefer. For both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar are now back on Broadway. And what better time to assess them than on this Easter weekend.

Of course, you already know the story and you probably know the shows too even if you never saw them because they were among the last of the Broadway musicals to make a big splash on mainstream radio. I bet most of you could karaoke Godspell’s “Day by Day” and Superstar’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” with very little help. 

Both shows were younger siblings of the trailblazing Hair, which first brought the hard rock sound and patchouli spirit to Broadway.  But they took distinctly different paths. I was an abstainer in college.  Really. I didn’t inhale, snort, amp up or trip. So I’m kind of agnostic when it comes to choosing between the two and actually found things to enjoy in both.

Although Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell opened on Broadway in 1976*, it was still steeped in the flower-power ethos of the mid-‘60s. Its laid-back hippie tribe roams the stage spouting parables from the New Testament's Book of Matthew and singing Schwartz’s catchy folk-rock songs.

The current revival, which has interpolated some current pop cultural references—Occupy Wall Street, Kanye West—is just as frisky as the show ever was and so family-friendly that I was surprised that there were so many empty seats the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw it. 

The actors playing the disciples are young, amiable and possibly the most ethnically diverse cast now working on the Great White Way.  Director Daniel Goldstein has them making most of their entrances and exits through the audience at Circle in the Square and the eight-man band is embedded in the audience too, which creates a kind of we're-all-in-this-together intimacy.

The staging is simple and the props are few but there is some audience participation; all the marks seemed particularly game at our performance. At intermission, everyone is invited to join in a communion of grape juice.

But it’s really the singing that makes or breaks this loosey-goosey show and this production has some  terrific singers. In fact, the weakest of the group is Hunter Parrish, best known as the oldest son on the cable series “Weeds,” who plays Jesus. 

Parrish, who is scheduled to hand over the role to “High School Musical’s” Corbin Bleu on April 17, is not a bad singer.  But he’s surrounded by some terrific ones. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to single out just one, I suppose I’d have to go with Telly Leung who sings the hell out of the song “All Good Gifts.” 

Most of the reviews have been lukewarm but the audience the night Bill and I saw the show went crazy for Godspell.  And it seems precisely the kind of show that tourists from Middle America would love, which is why I don’t get why its attendance is hovering in the mid-70s.  It’s not for lack of marketing.  The show’s lead producer is the energetic Ken Davenport, who seems to have an idea a day about how to promote it. 

He's even developed word of mouth by crowdsourcing part of the show's financing so that people could get producer boasting rights for as little as $1,000 (their combined credit in the Playbill actually reads “The People of Godspell”). And cast members participated in a challenge on the Bravo reality show "Project Runway." Maybe they'd be getting more bang for their buck (and more butts in seats) if they’d shown up on the religious Trinity Broadcasting Network instead.

Superstar grooves to a different beat. Even though it originally opened in 1971, five years before Godspell,* its aesthetic is harder, more punk-tinged and cynical. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created a sung-through oratorio in which Jesus suffers inner doubts and Judas’ betrayal of him is motivated by his belief that Jesus is too into the celebrity thing. 

I didn’t think much of the show when my college roommate Laura and I saw the original production but Des McAnuff, who cut his teeth on rock operas when he helmed The Who’s Tommy back in 1993, keeps things moving at an appealingly fast—and almost breathless—clip in the current incarnation now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre.

McAnuff has also found some fantastic singers, lead by Paul Nolan as a kind of stoned surfer-dude Jesus and Josh Young, who goes so all out with his emo vocalizations for Judas that both my friend Jesse and I worried about how he’ll manage to keep doing it eight shows a week.

The thunder-voiced Marcus Nance also deserves kudos for his scene-stealing work as the high priest Caiaphas. Meanwhile, Tom Hewitt brings welcomed maturity and nuance to the role of the reluctant executioner Pontius Pilate. 

And the creative team—particularly lighting designer Howell Binkley and video designer Sean Nieuwenhuisprovide plenty of eye candy, including neon tickers and strobe lighting effects. There isn't really a dull moment in the entire two hours it takes to get Jesus to the cross.

Still, this Superstar is a show I respect more than like.  It takes itself so seriously. The campy “Herod’s Song” number almost stops the show simply because the audience is so desperate for a laugh and a let up from the rest of the show’s unrelentingly sober intensity.

But the real challenge for both shows has been to figure out how to end. Which, of course, is the whole point of the passion play.  Superstar opts for a multimedia extravaganza. Godspell just kind of leaves Jesus, well, hanging there. But whichever one you choose, you'll find  some good stuff on the way to Calvary.

*my friend Howard Sherman reminds me that Godspell first opened off-Broadway in 1971.

April 4, 2012

The Tribulations of a Bloodless "Carrie"

It’s been a big season for remixed musicals. But while newcomers did the controversial nipping and tucking on Porgy and Bess and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, it’s the original team (composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford and book writer Lawrence D. Cohen) who stitched together the new version of Carrie that is playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through April 8.

They apparently saw their makeover efforts as a labor of love—and vindication.  For as every theater geek knows Carrie has been the poster girl for Broadway flops ever since the writer Ken Mandelbaum published a chronicle of Broadway’s biggest disasters in 1991 and named the book “Not Since Carrie.” 

The show, an $8 million musical version of Stephen King’s 1974 novel about a meek teen who is bullied until she uses telekinetic powers against her tormentors, played for just 16 previews and five performances back in 1988.  New York Times critic Frank Rich likened it to a “cheesy foreign-language floor show.”

No cast album was recorded but tales of the show’s over-the-top campiness—a song and dance number about the slaughtering of a pig, the title character’s serenade to a pair of prom shoes, the knife-wielding histrionics of her fanatically religious mother, the blood-drenched showdown at the senior prom—took on a legendary status over the years.

So when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I heard that MCC Theater was reviving Carrie, we signed up for the entire season just so that we’d be sure to get tickets. In fact, we saw the show twice.  We liked it better the second time but that’s because having already seen it once, we knew to lower our expectations.

Our first time was during the show’s February previews but Marin Mazzie, who plays Carrie’s religion-crazed mother Margaret, was out sick and her understudy went on. Margaret is a tough role (the great Barbara Cook bailed during the London tryout and it took the almost-as-great Betty Buckley almost a decade to get back to Broadway after playing her in the original production—click here to read Buckley’s memories about that experience) and although the understudy sang well, she kind of zombie-walked through the part.

So we went back. And Mazzie, as fine an actress as she is a singer, was indeed more compelling but she still wasn’t able to make the show seem like much more than a low-budget After School Special.

Gore and Pitchford have reworked the score, adding half a dozen new songs and tweaking the holdovers. Cohen has updated the book with a new framing device and references to smart phones and the Kardashians. Meanwhile, director Stafford Arima and his design team have tamped down most of the horror elements and all the other red-hot excess that the team clearly believes marred the original production.   

The result, alas, is kind of bloodless and gray. That includes David Zinn’s utilitarian set, the off-the-rack costumes by Emily Rebholz that, with the exception of the sad sack duds for Carrie, are so contemporary looking that the actors might as well be wearing rehearsal clothes and Matthew Holtzclaw’s low-tech special effects which make Carrie’s telekinetic powers as modest as her wardrobe.

Meanwhile, Matt Williams’ choreography looks like a hand-me down version of Bill T. Jones’ for Spring Awakening.  The lighting by Kevin Adams and video design by Sven Ortel are the splashiest parts of the production but they’re called on to do too much heavy lifting.

Molly Ranson sings well in the title role and her duets with Mazzie are the best part of the show but Ranson never managed to make me really feel for Carrie. The rest of the young ensemble is eager and for, the most part, they really do resemble high school kids.  But that has its good and bad points too. Their youth adds verisimilitude but there were too many moments when I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a high school senior class play.

I now realize that what I really wanted to see was the campy disaster that Carrie was.  But, of course, the show’s creative team wanted to show the sincere morality tale they’d always thought Carrie should be (click here to read more about their take on the show). 

I don't think any of us ended up truly satisfied. MCC had optimistically extended the show’s limited run even before opening night but so-so reviews and less-than-so ticket sales forced it to cut two weeks off the three-week extension.

But this isn’t the end for Carrie’s story. Last week, MGM announced that it’s going to do a remake of Brian De Palma’s classic 1976 movie version. Carrie, it seems, just refuses to die.