a theatre, film & pop culture review
Before a singing, web-slinging Spidey fell from the sky, “Scary” White was doused in pig’s blood gathered by leather pants-clad teens writhing and gyrating over pyrotechnic pig troughs under the glow of red disco-lights. With what Frank Rich could only describe as “uninhibited tastelessness” in 1988, Carrie left a bloody trail all over Broadway, ditching the prom after a brief appearance of only 21 performances (after doing much the same in London, where Barbara Cook, as the mad matriarch Margaret White, was nearly decapitated by a set piece). Audiences were so appalled/amazed by what they saw that, night after night, half stood booing, while the other half cheered. Many returned again and again throughout the three-week run to delight in the absurd train-wreck of a spectacle, somehow knowing that Carrie, that telekinetic outcast, wouldn’t be able to take much more of the jeers. And they were right: the wealthiest producer jumped ship, shutting down the prom for good. And without so much as a cast recording to endear her to us forever, Carrie officially, and voraciously, become a musical theatre aficionado’s white whale.
I’ve not read Stephen King’s 1974 gothic tale, and my memory of the 1976 film is a wee-bit fuzzy, but what is forever etched in vivid, glorious detail in my musical theatre-lovin’ mind is this show I have never even seen. Thanks to the wonders of You Tube, a musical bootleg or two and Ken Mandelbaum’s too-amazing-to-be-true scene-by-scene chronicle of the first preview (Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops), you, too, can feel like you were there. And if you see MCC Theater’s current Off-Broadway production, you’ll be relieved and adrenalized to finally be able to say with triumphant veracity that yes, you did it! You finally saw Carrie!
Except that you didn’t really see her — not Carrie as you think of her anyway. When I spoke with Canadian-born director Stafford Arima, he, like every other devoted Carrie-cultist, could trace the exact start of his fascination with the much buzzed-about and bloody musical to age 19 when he saw one of the notorious preview performances. But it wasn’t until 20 years later, after he’d staged the Off-Broadway hit Alter Boyz and Ragtime on London’s West End, that he revisited Carrie, and discovered what he says was a universal story: “We’re all Carrie. We all know what it’s felt like to be an outsider.”
And it’s true: Carrie is the extreme of the prototypical outcast. Raised by her religious-fanatic, man-hating momma, she doesn’t know that the blood running down her leg is a natural occurrence — “And Eve Was Weak,” mother explains in the show’s most extraordinary and memorable song — and the girls in her gym class mercilessly taunt her for her unbelievable ignorance, screaming and chucking tampons at her head. And when Carrie gets angry — and boy, can she get angry — her hotheaded emotions materialize in the most violent and physical extremes.
While it’s not fair to compare the two productions, it’s impossible not to. It’s no secret that the show’s creators were exceedingly unhappy with director Terry Hands’s original over-the-top vision (they did not allow the show to be produced anywhere, again, until now), and so Stafford’s seriously straight “reimagining” — he doesn’t consider it a revival, though most of the book and score remain intact — minimalizes everything that was beloved/abhorred about the Broadway incarnation to better suit it for the 299-seat Lucille Lortel Theatre. The small and nearly uniformly excellent cast of 14 includes 11 teenagers — or actors who at least look like they could be in high school — who energetically bounce around David Zinn’s (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Xanadu) spare set (essentially chairs and a dressing table) and occasionally rock out Matt Williams’s choreography, which is like a lesser hybrid of Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening) and Steven Hoggett’s (American Idiot) isolated stomping and arm-pumping.
Needless to say, these aren’t nearly the thirty-year-old toga-clad, breathlessly aerobicizing gym students of the Broadway production (which is good/bad depending on your taste). And while thanks to “magician and special effects consultant” Matthew Holtzclaw, there are some fun visual tricks with levitating objects and mysteriously moving chairs, Kevin Adams’s red-washed lighting and Sven Ortel’s projections — as conveniently unmessy as they are — simply aren’t a substitute for seeing that vat of porcine blood pour down Carrie’s stricken face.
What it comes down to is that Arima’s minimalized modernization — Carrie now lives in the age of sexting, natch — doesn’t fix the original problem with the show, which appears to stem from the source material itself, or at the very least the film: Just like the awkwardly sweet and dangerously naive titular character, this Carrie doesn’t know who or what she is. With the exception of the already mentioned “And Eve Was Weak,” Michael Gore’s (Fame) score does not evoke the dark, unsettling tones of what is oft the horrifying experience of being a teenager. Instead, it revels in a sappy-sweet nostalgia of that period of life (how soon adults forget the depths and despair of teenage trauma!) with poppy duets that earnestly declare, with the help of Dean Pitchford’s generic lyrics, “You Shine” and “Open Your Heart.”
Lawrence D. Cohen’s book (he also scripted the film) is just as uneven, veering from the operatic misogyny of Carrie’s one-dimensional crazy-pants mom to unfathomable cruel high school bitchery to exaggerated selflessness (no girl would beg her guy to take another girl to the big dance, I don’t care how nice/sorry she is) and even — Yes!! — a bit of deliriously golden camp (bad girl Chris and her bad-boy boyfriend whip themselves into an orgasmic oinking frenzy whilst singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” No joke.) The tone is so inconsistent — one minute ardently sweet, and the next scarily fantastic — it’s doubtful anyone could make this Carrie “work” without going the way of extreme, full-tilt camp, which is what the Broadway version was striving for, even if it didn’t entirely accomplish (or intend) it. The other option, of course, is to start from scratch with new writers (Michael John LaChiusa, perhaps?) who aren’t afraid of going all Black Swan on Carrie: lurid and tense and chilling — with a little bit of campy good fun thrown in for good measure.
None of this is to say Carrie isn’t worth seeing, because she certainly is — some sequences and scenes are highly compelling, especially those that focus on the central, fascinating mother-daughter relationship as played by Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson. As Carrie, Ranson (Jerusalem, Burnt Part Boys) shuffles across the stage in her matronly skirt and bulky cardigan, at once desperately afraid and strongly desiring of interaction with her clique-ish peers. Ranson’s at her best when she’s that hopeful Carrie of the prom, her bright eyes gazing about her in genuine wonder and delight; it hurts to know what’s to befall her, but her transformation to blood-soaked vocal rage is intensely terrific.
But Carrie’s best moments will always belong to Margaret White, and as the hyper-evangelical, misogynistic matriarch, a haggard-looking Marin Mazzie, with limp, straw-like hair and a makeup-free face, is ridiculously, insanely good. This woman finds depths of crazy — and even empathy — that I didn’t know could exist in such a slight form: her mental balance teeters violently throughout, her inexplicable rage towards her own daughter building and ferociously erupting in “And Eve Was Weak” before petering out in quiet, sad-beautiful acceptance of “When There’s No One.” Sure, she’s played the crazy before (Next to Normal), but not anywhere near like this. And it’s in those few moments of juxtaposition — her terrifying fanaticism alongside Ranson’s childlike innocence (the two even look like mother and daughter) — when both women are finally, always, clinging to each other to stave off loneliness and fear — that’s when you catch a glimpse of her.