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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Molly Ranson
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Were it not an unavoidable fact of theatre life that the musical Carrie was an electrifying megaflop when it debuted on Broadway in 1988, you'd never be able to tell from MCC's new revival of it at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. In the years since their show's Main Stem bow (and almost instantaneous exit), writers Lawrence D. Cohen, Michael Gore, and Dean Pitchford have certainly toned down its atomic bomb tendencies. But in doing so, they've swung so far in the opposite direction that what was once (for better and worse) unthinkable and unpredictable is now completely unable to annoy, offend, or excite. Is this Carrie better than the original? In strict, black-and-white terms, probably. Is it anywhere near as interesting? Not a chance.

One suspects that was partially the authors' goal in accepting director Stafford Arima's offer to revisit the musical. After all, the trio refused for years to release the musical's performance rights, even as diehard theatre lovers craved its sights and sounds based on vivid descriptions in the Ken Mandelbaum book it inspired (Not Since Carrie) and bootleg recordings from both Stratford (where it premiered) and New York. Why put out there this adaptation of Stephen King's 1974 novel, over which they slaved for years, only to have it mocked and mucked with until it became an even wider-spread joke? Doing everything possible to avoid that outcome would be at the forefront of nearly any serious writer's mind.

In doing so, however, the authors either ignored or misunderstood a key part of the work's popularity: that some people actually liked it, or at least parts of it. That's not insignificant. The inaugural production may have fallen prey to both directorial mismanagement and an entertainment climate more inclined to high-octane pop opera than straightforward traditional musical storytelling, but the songs for which Gore composed music and Pitchford penned lyrics rank among the more arresting and inventive of 1980s Broadway.

For Carrie White, the tortured teen who discovers menstruation as she begins developing telekinetic powers, they wrote a forceful title number, in which she yearns for acceptance, friendship, and recognition from the ostracizing crowd around her. For her heavily religious mother Margaret, they devised a haunting solo about the acceptance of abandonment called "When There's No One." Carrie and her gym teacher–protector Miss Gardner even earned a joyful power-ballad duet called "Unsuspecting Hearts." More searing still were Carrie and her mother's musical confrontation scenes, including the vitriolic "And Eve Was Weak," the reverent "Evening Prayers," and the desperate Act I finale, "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance."

The good news about the revised Carrie is that all these numbers, which represent modern theatre writing at its freshest and most dramatic, have been retained (along with two lesser efforts, "In" and "Do Me a Favor"), and the weakest dumped (three words: "Out for Blood"). The bad news is that they have almost no impact as they're now utilized. If the original production's biggest (and perhaps only) plus was that it made bold choices, this new one makes none. If it's atoning for its predecessor's misdeeds, it's done so at the expense of the dynamic distinctiveness that made it worth reviving in the first place.

The only significant improvement is in the book. Cohen, who also wrote the screenplay for the well-known 1976 film adaptation, has retained huge swaths of dialogue from Broadway, but expanded his libretto to clarify Carrie's dual conflicts, and humanize both her would-be friends Sue and Tommy and her defined enemies Chris and Billy. Most of the new material helps make sense of the potentially confusing narrative, even if little of the writing is particularly insightful.

Everything else has taken several steps down. New orchestrations (by Doug Besterman) and arrangements (by musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell) replace the work's rock roots with easy-listening, piano-heavy pop that in no way stings. The handful of new songs are usually of the mawkish and forgettable variety, with titles like "Dreamer in Disguise," "A Night We'll Never Forget," and "You Shine," that say nothing unique, but do so with lots of lilting, legato lines.

Even the physical production looks as if it's designed to spare every expense and chance of failure. David Zinn's set is a chalk-gray gym that looks like an abandoned warehouse, and not one where anything fun was ever stored. Emily Rebholz's costumes are appropriately adolescent but lifeless, as is Kevin Adams's unimaginative lighting design. Special mention must also be made of Sven Ortel's projections, which through astonishing misuse render inert two of the story's most crucial moments: the climaxes of the first and second acts (involving, to be relatively spoiler-free, a set of windows and a bucket, respectively).

Then there are the performances. With the exceptions of the properly pitched Christy Altomare and Derek Klena, who play Sue and Tommy, the remaining cast members put forth unremarkable voices and undetectable personalities. (Jeanna de Waal and Ben Thompson, as Chris and Billy, and Carmen Cusack, as Miss Gardner, try the hardest, if visibly and ineffectually so.) But none are more destructive than the two lead actresses.

Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson
Photo by Joan Marcus.

As played by Molly Ranson, Carrie is now a spiritual nonentity, neither a woman about to break free of her girlish confines or a monster in demure clothing. She comes across as little more than an empty receptacle for schoolmates' taunts in one half of the plot and her mother's dominance in the other. Ranson does little to explain who she is, and hints at none of the playfulness, sauciness, and rage that events demand from the character. Her only adequate singing voice, and an unfortunate tendency to clench her eyes shut while singing, make it even more difficult to relate or sympathize with her.

Marin Mazzie, on the other hand, has consciously chosen to portray Margaret as an Everywoman. That's fine in theory, but it has major deficits in execution, as it does not give Margaret the psychological underpinnings she needs for her increasingly appalling actions over the course of the show. Deploying a careful mix that avoids either full soprano or full belting and thus fails to convey a committed personality, Mazzie's Margaret seems so milquetoast in demeanor and even reasonable in her demands that her behavior cannot stun or outrage, and her songs cannot impress.

It's as if Arima and the authors have ensured that nothing can. The passionate indifference of the staging and the acting may have brought Carrie down to Earth, but doesn't prove that's where it belongs. From the first seconds, which prove the evening's disinterest in the musical form by unfolding without a single note to be heard; through the lighthearted elaboration of Carrie's powers, which are supposed to be manifestations of her repression and not party tricks to be played for laughs; through to the feeling-bereft finale, everything on view here is dangerously safe to the point of inertia.

Interestingly, this approach runs counter to the message of the musical, which warns against stifling one's individuality in either public or private. Given what they've endured, it's easy to understand why Cohen, Gore, and Pitchford might not want their musical to stand out from the crowd ever again. But given what they've put onstage, it's impossible to understand why any non-insomniac should bother to see it.

Through April 22
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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