It’s a bold move to bring back one of the biggest flops in Broadway history, but MCC has defied the odds with the newly revised Carrie currently playing an extended off-Broadway run. The original was the stuff of the legend (see Ken Mandelbaum’s Not Since Carrie), with a rapid, high profile failure on Broadway in 1988. In the years since, the show’s reputation has only grown. Carrie is back with a vengeance, but in this sanitized and updated revisal, the creators have still not met the potential for a truly remarkable musical.
Based on the Stephen King novel, the musical tells the story of a unique outcast with telekinetic powers sheltered by her religious fanatic mother. When the girl gets her first period in the gym shower, the other girls taunt her which sets this bizarre cautionary tale of bullying into motion, culminating in the prom from hell. I have never really thought of the King novel or film as a horror story, though there are elements (most notably the famous final scene in the film). It’s always felt more like a supernatural drama, with a tortured protagonist who never has a chance at the normalcy she so desperately craves.
The creators of the original musical went back to the drawing board on this revision, first seen in a reading in 2009. The camp excesses that made the original production jaw-dropping to late 80s audiences have been scaled back or removed. (Most notably, the number about killing the pig). Matt Williams’ choreography is more teen-angsty Spring Awakening’s than Debbie Allen jazzercise prom. The script has been updated with contemporary references to Facebook and smart phones. However, the musical spends too much time with people who are not Carrie and that is a problem. The teachers (Wayne Alan Wilcox and an excellent Carmen Cusack) are underdeveloped. The teenagers come across like leftover tropes from 80s high school comedies, and that grows tedious fairly quickly. It is only when the musical focuses on the relationship between Carrie and her mother that the show becomes truly compelling.
Molly Ranson is stunning as Carrie White. The script doesn’t give her much time to establish who she is, but Ranson creates a portrait of teenage loneliness and sadness that my empathy for her increased precipitously as the show went on. Her first number, the title song, comes quite early and, but it feels rushed and early; as though it should be heard at a later point (and it doesn’t seem like Carrie should be belting so much so soon). But Ranson is ultimately devastating, particularly in the second act. Even more impressive is Marin Mazzie, whose naturalistic performance as Margaret White only serves to make her religious eccentricity far more creepy than I would have thought possible. Mazzie takes us from a seemingly carefree, doting mother to a sober puritanical nightmare in her first five minutes onstage, culminating in the unsettling duet “And Eve Was Weak.” In the second act, she all but stopped the show with the devastating “When There’s No One,” as Margaret, resolved to kill her daughter because of her telekinesis, confronts the loneliness that awaits her.
Those hoping for big, over-the-top “They’re all gonna laugh at you/Dirty Pillows” camp and an excessively bloody climax will be disappointed. The musical relies less on grand effects than it does on the audience’s imagination. Carrie as a musical is a far cry from the disaster history would have you believe it was, but the revisions don’t make much of a case for it either. Still, considering its status in theatre history and the fact that I never thought I’d get to see a production of it, I am most grateful for the opportunity.