Sometimes less really is more. This statement is certainly true when applied to the musical adaption of Stephen King’s Carrie, which has been reincarnated at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
King’s story about a telekinetic young woman and her religious fanatic mother is widely known. The novel was his first major success and was adapted into an acclaimed feature film in 1976. Directed by Brian dePalma, Carrie has long been considered a a watershed film of the horror genre and one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King work, and actresses Sissy Spacek (Carrie) and Piper Laurie (Margaret) received Academy Award nominations for their roles.
The musical adaptation of the book did not fare as well. With a book by Lawrence D. Cohen, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, and music by Michael Gore, the musical premiered at Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in 1988 and, despite poor notices, quickly moved to Broadway. At a then record-breaking cost of $8 million, the production was critically attacked and closed after only 16 previews and 5 performances, earning a place in history as one of Broadway’s biggest flops. With no cast album to record its score and a few fuzzy videos on YouTube for historical reference, Carrie is a mysterious and passionately loved work, in spite of – or perhaps because of – its infamous failure. The show even inspired Ken Mandelbaum’s book, Not Since Carrie – 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, which chronicled its big-budget special effects, inexplicable costume choices and the famed Act Two opening number, “Out for Blood,” which included the lyrics, “It’s a simple little gig/You help me kill a pig.”
The show was never licensed for performance by its creators, and other than a staging at the performing arts camp Stagedoor Manor, has never been commercially produced until now. But its creators continued to believe in their work and now a significantly retooled production has opened off-Broadway at the intimate Lortel theater. And it’s actually good. Really good.
While the original production of Carrie was a big-scale, big-budget production with a large cast, smoke, laser and hydraulic effects, its 2012 reincarnation is an exercise in restraint. A small cast, staged on a minimal set and a scaled-down special effects come together to deliver a surprisingly simple, moving story. (The creative team includes David Zinn- set, Emily Rebholz – costumes, Kevin Adams – lights, Jonathan Deans – sound, and Sven Ortel – projections, all of which are impressive.) Carrie White (played by Molly Ranson) is the only daughter of religious fanatic and single mother Margaret (Marin Mazzie, excellent). Shy and mousy, Carrie is an outcast at her high school and frequently referred to as “Scarrie White” or “Praying Carrie.” After Carrie gets her first period in the shower at gym class and does not know what is happening to her, a group of her classmates torment her by throwing tampons at her and shouting, “Plug it up!” One of Carrie’s classmates, Sue (Christy Altomare), is plagued with remorse for the act of bullying and, hoping to make it up to Carrie, asks her boyfriend Tommy (Derek Klena) to take Carrie as his date to the prom. But class bully Chris (Jeanna de Waal) is punished for tormenting Carrie and enlists the help of her boyfriend Billy (Ben Thompson) for help in getting revenge. The results of the prank, which takes place at the prom, are disastrous.
Carrie is an unusual story to set to music onstage, the execution of the special effects not the least of the challenges. Director Stafford Arina has wisely opted for a minimalistic approach to the famous prom scene, utilizing lights and music to signify the horrific images rather than attempting a literal portrayal. When Carrie begins to recognize her telekinetic abilities, the audience does see a few pieces of furniture move about the stage on their own. But the core of this show – as was the core of King’s original book – is the story of the people, not their powers..
The strength of King’s writing lies in his ability to discover the latent horror lurking in everyday life. Unhappy marriages and alcoholism haunted the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, and in Carrie, high school social cliques and raging hormones inspire as many horrors as the title character’s supernatural abilities. The musical arrangements effectively depict the turbulent emotions of the teenagers, especially during the opening number, “In,” where the zombie-inspired dance moves inspire memories of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The choreography in other songs utilizes classroom chairs, reminiscent of Spring Awakening, another show that depicts the danger of unchecked teenage hormones.
Adolescent insecurity is often expressed as cruelty and Carrie offers unsettling insight into the dangers of teenage bullying. Unfortunately, many of the characters are written only as one-dimensional cutouts rather than actual people and they do not register on an emotional level. Ringleader Chris is a villain – nothing more – and while the audience is offered a small glimpse at the vulnerability beneath her cover, it does not inspire any real sympathy. The kind-hearted Sue and her equally sweet boyfriend Tommy are pleasant, but one never knows why they have the courage to stand up to their classmates and tell them to leave Carrie alone.
In the title role, Ranson gives a heartfelt performance of admirable sincerity. Her slender frame, wide eyes and wild hair enhance her already nervous air as she timidly hurries about the stage, avoiding eye contact with everyone around her. As she discovers her telekinetic abilities and learns to stand up to her mother, and during her brief, happy moments at the prom with Tommy, one wants to cheer her on from the audience. Her innocent joy and wonder at slow dancing with a boy is unbelievably endearing.
Carrie’s mother, Margaret White, is played by Broadway veteran Marin Mazzie. Stepping into the role created by Betty Buckley (rumor has it in a legendary performance), Mazzie takes a firm ownership of the part. A religious fanatic who apparently prayed her daughter would never experience menstruation, Margaret is terribly abusive to Carrie, but she also fiercely loves her. The tender moments between Mazzie and Ranson are sincere and one never fails to believe the mother’s love for her daughter – in her own, twisted way. Mazzie sings two of the night’s best songs – “And Eve Was Weak” and “When There’s No One,” and gives them both complex depth and emotion, refusing to resort to exaggeration or caricature, which could easily happen in the hands of a lesser skilled actress.
Sadly, the rest of the music is not nearly as impressive, bogged down with unimpressive melodies and pedestrian lyrics. During a love duet, one character sings to her boyfriend, “What a surprise/Looking into your eyes,” and the titular anthem, where Carrie declares her sense of self empowerment, is one of the show’s weaker numbers, despite a Ranson’s heartfelt rendition of it.
What surprised me the most about Carrie was its poignant relevance to current events. The movie was set in the 1970s and the original incarnation was decidedly eighties, while this new incarnation seems to be set in the present day. (References to Facebook and smartphones are made by the teenagers.) But the show’s themes are just as, if not more, relevant to 2012 – a realization that was unsettling and saddening. Carrie’s telekentic powers stem in part from her sexual awakening, despite her mother’s desperation to keep her daughter a pure little girl. Margaret’s fear and shock upon learning that Carrie experienced her first period inspired comparisons to the frantic debate about birth control and “religious freedom” that has been taking place. And when Carrie pleads with her mother to recognize that “not everything is bad. Not everything is a sin,” Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum immediately came to mind.
Lack of sexual education and religious oppression, as well as teenage cruelty and bullying, are, unfortunately timeless topics with potentially disastrous outcomes. While Carrie is a decidedly entertaining show, one hopes it is equally educational for the audience.