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.

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