CARRIE the musical is no longer a joke, and since it’s been a reliable punchline for almost a quarter of a century (a book about Broadway disasters was titled “Not Since Carrie“), that’s quite an accomplishment.
Carrie carried a load of baggage before it even opened to a paying Broadway crowd. The original novel made Stephen King’s career, and the 1976 film–a genuine classic in a genre that claims to find a new one every 2 months–did the same for director Brian DePalma and star Sissy Spacek (both Spacek and co-star Piper Laurie were nominated for Oscars, an extreme rarity for roles in a horror movie). The twisted Cinderella story of sad misfit Carrie White, who compensates for her misery at the hands of her religious fanatic mother and her cruel schoolmates with murderous telekinesis, has always hit readers and audiences in a very emotional way. Although he wasn’t yet making movies at the time Carrie was written or filmed, one can fairly call it John Hughes plus horror.
Even on a post-Sweeney Todd Broadway, setting all this to music was a dicey proposition, and as it happened, the original production of Carrie was a catastrophe besides. I was one of the people to attend a preview; not being aware I was seeing history in the making, I can’t say I’ve retained much of a memory of the show, but I do recall the strikingly ugly and ridiculous set, featuring a giant white staircase that seemed to have wandered in from a Ziegfeld Folly, and the now-legendary number about murdering pigs and draining their blood.
Both staircase and pig song are gone from the new off-Broadway MCC production, a much more modest affair (currently in previews, so subject to change in the next couple of weeks) that foregoes spectacle and concentrates on the character and emotion that drive the tale. Seen on this smaller scale, the (much-revised) score by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford no longer seems silly, and Lawrence D. Cohen’s book (he also wrote the screenplay for DePalma’s film) makes sense.
The new production of Carrie establishes it as a perfectly reasonable show worthy of being viewed on its own merits, That doesn’t, however, make it particularly memorable. A lot of the Gore/Pitchford songs are fairly generic (at its worst, this Carrie can resemble a particularly vicious episode of Glee), and the character of Margaret, Carrie’s crazy mother, is humanized in a way that hurts the gale-force power she needs to have. While the low-budget production helps to bring Carrie and the plotline to the forefront, and while of course it would have been impossible to duplicate the rhythmic editing, split screens and slow-motion with which DePalma orchestrated his magic on screen, the climactic prom sequence simply needs more bloody pizzazz than director Stafford Arima can summon.
This Carrie does have a superb Carrie: Molly Ranson may not be Spacek, but she pulls off the character’s cowed beginnings, her blossoming at the prom and her ultimate rage as well, and Spacek didn’t have to do it in song. Marin Mazzie is in wonderful voice as Mom, but as noted, her character as composed lacks the passion and fury that Piper Laurie had in the movie. Christy Altomare and Jeanna de Waal are also notable as the good and very mean girls (which is to say, Amy Irving and Nancy Allen) in Carrie’s class. Derek Klena is somewhat bland as Tommy, the show’s Prince Charming, but that comes with the role–William Katt couldn’t do much with it in 1976, either.
This Carrie is still less than great, but it’s also far less than terrible. The stigma of its title has been–to invoke another horror classic–exorcised. Now where’s that revival of Moose Murders?
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