"Doesn't anybody ever get it right?" sang tragic heroine Carrie White (Linzi Hately) in the1988 staging of "Carrie: the Musical." Though her passionate query was in response to the constant heckling of her name, it may as well have been about the troubled production. After a four week run in the Stratford-upon-Avon theater in England and then16 previews and five performances on Broadway, the show closed thanks to terrible reviews and widely divided audience reception. The general consensus was that while the music and performances were exceptional, the staging and every other decision was on another level of bad.
From the gaudy costumes to the campy Debbie Allen choreography, it was difficult to appreciate the positive aspects of the show. The eight million dollar production, written by Lawrence D. Cohen (the screenwriter for the 1976 film version of "Carrie), became a cautionary tale for everything that was wrong with Broadway at the time. But those who saw the original production and enjoyed it, seemed to enjoy the hell out of it. The cult of "Carrie: the Musical" grew fairly quickly. Bootlegs of the show began making the rounds and several of the songs (with music by Michael Gore and lyrics by Dean Pitchford) became instant classics in Broadway circles.
Thankfully, after 24 years, "Carrie" has returned for her encore - and they finally did "get it right." With the sure hand of director Stafford Arima, the original creative team of Cohen, Gore and Pitchford have revised the entire production; keeping everything that was great about the original musical and completely reworking everything else. About half of the memorable songs have been retained, while the more superfluous and tonally inappropriate have been cut. The book has been restructured yet retains all the essential beats from both the Stephen King Book and iconic Brian DePalma film. The more grand guignol aspects have been toned down, allowing for a more grounded, minimalist approach. So be warned, those going into "Carrie 2.0" expecting a camp-fest will be very disappointed.
Gore's new version is told as a flashback with teenager Sue Snell (a strong Christy Altomare) being interviewed about the tragic events surrounding the prom. The narrative structure closely follows Cohen's original film script, down to key pieces of dialogue. Carrie (played by the mesmerizing Molly Ranson) is the high school outcast, known as "poor praying Carrie." Tormented by her peers for being different and kept cloistered by the suffocating, religious fanaticism of her mother Margaret (the haunting Marin Mazzie), the teen is ripe for catharsis. Like the source material, the arrival of her first menstrual period triggers an innate telekinetic power and a chain of tragic events. Her newfound abilities and Cinderella-like transformation are more grounded this time out, adding a potent relevancy to her operatic rise and fall.
The cast is an impressive mix of seasoned Broadway professionals and vibrant new talent. Ranson gives a spirited, heartbreaking performance as the outcast teenager. Her gorgeous voice and nuanced acting are an ideal fit for the stage version of this complicated character. The Tony-nominated Mazzie brings a refreshingly humanistic approach to the fanatical Margaret White. While this makes her more accessible, she's missing a true sense of menace intrinsic to the character. Hopefully this will manifest itself as the show continues. Though she may lack a certain edge, her haunting vocals add a sweet melancholy to the best songs in the production. Altomare's Sue is the true protagonist of the story and her strong performance helps to anchor the show. She has a beautiful singing voice as well. Jeanna De Waal as Chris truly makes the character her own. Her playful, mischievous take on King's iconic bully offers up a more realistic and compelling character. The rest of the cast is equally strong including Carmen Cusack as Ms. Gardner, who injects a lot of humor and warmth into her role, and Derek Klena who creates a likeable, charismatic Tommy Ross.
The main reason that "Carrie: the Musical" refuses to die is that songs created by Gore and Pitchford are so bloody memorable. While there were several pieces in the original that were standouts, some of them simply didn't serve the narrative. Here every song either furthers the action or adds nuance to the characters. The opening song "In," a catchy ode to the need for acceptance, was originally sung by the girls working out in the gym. In the new version, all of the teenage principals take part, underlining the universality of needing to belong. The most difficult song lyrically is "Carrie," which is also the most unabashedly "Broadway" in style. As sung by Ranson, the song takes on a more heartfelt, personal tone. Arima's staging and Ranson's performance reflect the more intimate focus of the show; transforming a "big" song into a very personal interior reflection.
The songs with Carrie and her mother Margaret are what most "Carrie" enthusiasts point to when defending the original work. "Open Your Heart," "And Eve was Weak" and "Evening Prayers" are beautiful, heartbreaking pieces that are a thrill to finally witness on stage. These songs are the true soul of the tragic narrative and are sung to perfection by Ranson and Mazzie. The best of the new songs is "The World According to Chris" a spirited and very frank look inside Chris' troubled psyche. Her flippant line "Nobody dies from a scar…" deftly defines the character. "Once You See" and "You Shine" (the former a beautiful solo with Altomare and the latter a duet with her co-star Klena) are also strong additions to the show. Why Gore and Pitchford haven't collaborated on more projects is a true mystery.
The minimalist set design by David Zinn and the clever projections of Sven Ortel help to underline the human drama. There are no grand stairs or pyrotechnics this time around. Two simple gymnasium doors in the background offer a banal sense of place and foreshadow the tragic events to come. Arima and company utilize dynamic lighting and subtle effects for the big climax, which was always a problem in the original production. The bucket of blood and the aftermath are orchestrated very cleverly, with Matt Williams' choreography adding the proper punctuation. The only real problem with this revival is that the show is perhaps too intimate. "Carrie" is a story of operatic proportions and might benefit from broader staging. The off-Broadway show, currently playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is a great theater that has even greater potential. Maybe all it would take is a larger venue - say one just off the Great White Way?