We all know the story, at least regular theater attendees do. Carrie opened as a big-budget musical on Broadway in the 1980s. A few short moons later it closed in financial and critical embarrassment. It went down in the history books as one of the greatest failures on the Great White Way.
The show, featuring music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford and a book by Lawrence D. Cohen, remained in the collective memory of many theatergoers. For more than two decades, ardent supporters claimed the two-act musical, based on Stephen King’s original novel, was, in fact, worthy of praise.
Flash forward to 2012 and MCC Theater’s exquisite refashioning of the show. By taking a more realistic approach, stressing teen bullying and religious fundamentalism, director Stafford Arima and his fine cast have resurrected this ghost into an enjoyable and even heartbreaking musical that deserves more than its inherent infamy.
The strengths begin and end with Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson, playing Margaret and Carrie White, respectively. The two performers completely embody their roles, so much so that the ending for both characters feels appropriately tragic, rather than a typical horror movie finale.
Carrie is a loner who has no friends and often doesn’t speak during her high school classes. Showering in front of the other girls is probably her darkest nightmare, especially when she has her first menstruation and a gaggle of girls humiliate her in the changing room. Carrie, we come to learn, thought she was bleeding to death, a byproduct of her mother’s strict, religious ways and refusal to tell her daughter about the birds and the bees.
Margaret White is the mother from hell, in the guise of a mother from heaven. Her puritanical heart is so warped that she doesn’t want her daughter to experience the world and its sinful ways. We learn of this odd mother-daughter relationship through the clever song, “And Eve Was Weak.”
The only saving grace for this awkward girl and her awkward ways is her telekinetic power. When her buttons are pushed (which often happens in a high school setting), strange things begin to occur. At first, it’s just a light bulb popping, but eventually it morphs into the ability to move objects and people.
The creative team, which updated the musical to the modern day, has solved most of the problems of the original production. The one area still lacking is with the annoying teenagers that congregate around Carrie. The motives of Sue Snell (Christy Altomare), the one good girl, are never defined. The others are all walking-talking cliches, texting on their iPhones, discussing drinking opportunities on the weekend and preparing for the super-rad prom. The company numbers, “A Night We’ll Never Forget” and “In,” do a better job of characterization than the lines of dialogue.
Carmen Cusack turns in a nice performance as Miss Gardner, the physical education teacher who attempts to take Carrie under her wing. Their duet, “Unsuspecting Hearts,” is one of the production’s highlights.
But the anchors of the show are Mazzie and Ranson. Mazzie, a theater veteran, never oversells the part, making Margaret’s peculiarities a little more believable, though no less brutal. Fans will remember Piper Laurie’s Oscar-nominated performance in the original film by Brian De Palma, and a select few may know of Betty Buckley’s turn in the original Broadway production. Mazzie scraps any earlier incarnations and simply carves out the character as if she were brand new. And in her strident Act II number, “When There’s No One,” Mazzie delivers the best song of the production.
Ranson is equally admirable. In the first few scenes, she is unbearably mouse-like, turning into herself and trying to avoid the arrows flying through the air. This is a full-body performance; just look at Ranson’s ever-searching eyes, the way she clings onto her sleeves and walks around the set. She becomes this ridiculed girl with the hopes of one day breaking out of her shell.
Her second-act transformation, when the hunk of the school asks her to the prom, is handled a little too much like a romantic comedy. It’s hard to believe this girl would change from night to day by combing her hair and putting on a pretty dress.
The staging by Arima is expertly handled. There’s not too much blood and the telekinetic powers produce some neat theatrical tricks. The set by David Zinn is an appropriate washed-out school setting that changes over to the White household with ease.
Carrie, which continues at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through April 22, is a fresh look on an old misfit. The show, like the title character, was poked and prodded by critics for years. Now the musical has its shot at the memorable big dance. Here’s hoping no one brings a bucket of blood.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
An MCC Theater production
Music by Michael Gore
Lyrics by Dean Pitchford
Book by Laawrence D. Cohen
Directed by Stafford Arima
Based on the novel by Stephen King
Starring Marrin Mazzie, Molly Ranson, Carmen Cusack and Christy Altomare
Running time: 120 minutes
Currently playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. in New York City. Click here for more information.