Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday March Musical Madness: Carrie

When Carrie: The Musical debuted on Broadway in 1988, it lasted just six performances before its financial backers pulled the plug. It was an $8 million investment, the Ishtar of the theatre world that despite sold-out early runs, would not even try to survive amid the venomous reviews that would make everything written about Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark feel like a soft fluffy blanket.
There was no cast recording ever released for the original production, although star Betty Buckley (who also appeared earlier in the Brian DePalma film) would go on to use one of its songs in her concert performances and discuss the show’s missed potential on an extra for the special edition film DVD release. Some grainy 1980s bootlegs have occasionally surfaced on YouTube, but save for a popular coffee table book about Broadway flops, the musical seemed destined to remain an urban legend to 21st century audiences.

When I learned that Carrie was being revived by the MCC Theater for the Off-Broadway Lucille Lortel Theatre, there was no chance in Castle Rock that I would miss it. With my cell phone turned off and fella bravely at my side, I ventured.
If you know the story of Carrie, then you know the story of the musical: Religious Teen’s telekinetic abilities blossom with her first period, while the Mean Girls tampon-bomb her and Nice Mean Girl feels bad about it. Nice Mean Girl enlists her Nice Boyfriend to take Religious Teen to the prom. Meanest Mean Girl dumps pig’s blood on Religious Teen just as she’s crowned prom queen. Mayhem ensues. Crazy Mom goes crazier. One survives.

A lot of theater audiences mock the very idea of turning a ‘70s horror novel into a musical. I think the potential is actually quite strong, since Carrie is a fairly operatic premise, with plenty of high drama character arcs that easily lend themselves to song. The risk, of course, is that if the material is taken seriously and DOESN’T work, it’s such a grand miscalculation that will immediately damn it as a more obvious flop than say, a musical retelling of Jane Eyre.
Following the colossal failure of Carrie’s first run, why revive it? I think the answer lies in the extreme curiosity of people like myself or Patrick over at the Scream Queenz podcast (check out his ultimate Carrie episode here). The same people who forked over a few bucks to see Hannibal Lector pirouette in Silence: The Musical might be eager to watch Mrs. White raise a knife over her blood-stained daughter’s middle.

We’re even more eager to laugh at it.
But see, just like its namesake, Carrie doesn’t want to be laughed at. It wants to move you, moisten your eyes, teach you about bullying and send chills down your spine without the help of air conditioning. This isn’t Silence or Evil Dead damnit! This is SERIOUS!

Which would be fine if the show was close to being great.
It’s not. It’s just...not.
By no means is Carrie the worst musical ever made. Come on folks, I’ve seen the woefully misguided Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, something even Patti LuFUCKINGPone couldn’t save. I was one of the very, very very very very few free ticket holders to get a peek at Jackie Mason’s painful Laughing Room Only, a show that ended its first act with a ten minute song about how Starbucks is confusing to old Jewish men. Carrie, you got nothing on that.

On the other hand, I’ve also been lucky enough to cry my eyes out at Ragtime and get the urge to kill a president seeing the incredible Assassins. Carrie won’t inspire me to commit a felony, nor did it crank up my tear ducts or ignite my glee on a ‘is this REALLY happening’ Love Never Dies level. Nope, it will do nothing because it’s a perfectly mediocre and forgettable show.

C’mon! It’s CARRIE! The MUSICAL! Mediocre is a dirtier word than dirty pillows.
The music is...okay. Most of the high points happen during Carrie and her mother’s tense duets, and while the melodies are haunting, the intensity isn’t as powerful as it should be, especially when Dean Pitchford’s lyrics might as well ask the audience to just fill in the rhyme with whatever is the easiest matching word. Molly Ranson has an incredible voice and likable presence as the awkward Carrie, but she never quite registers as the stomped upon wallflower abused from every side. Broadway veteran Marin Mazzie (a Ragtime star herself) gets some of the best musical moments as Mrs. White, but there’s no real sense of the horror she’s capable of, making her big final moment more laughable than scary. I can appreciate the idea of toning down Piper Laurie’s iconic crazy to find some more humanity in the character, but ultimately, the stakes just never get high enough.

The rest of the cast does little with little. While the ensemble hits their mark and pop admirably, Christy Altomare’s Sue Snell has little spark. It doesn’t help that the musical incorporates an awkward interrogation style for Sue to speak directly to the audience, telling us everything that did and will happen and what it all might mean. This element is obviously taken from the novel (and to worse extent, the 2002 television remake) and while one could see how it’s supposed to lend commentary on the story, it’s used so poorly that it ends up feeling like a theater game the writers forgot to cut after the workshop.

So what DOES work? David Zinn’s set design primarily. The simple look focuses on a pair of gymnasium doors, an ominous and surprisingly powerful foundation that does more to foreshadow the impending horror than all of Sue’s “We didn’t know what would happen!” pleas clumsily planted in the first act. Similarly, Kevin Adams’ lighting design does the job of covering the prom queen in pig’s blood in an effective way. Unfortunately, the story itself rushes through the climax as if trying to get its audience on the next train. Neither Carrie’s joyful crowning nor her rage fueled massacre is given any proper stage time, meaning we never feel the highs of her glory or real motivation for her crime. The attack ends in less than a minute, wiping all the characters out without prejudice. While I wouldn’t expect a small-scale musical to expand Carrie’s hunt outside of school grounds, the decision to give head mean girl Chris the same end as her lackeys and randomly southern gym teacher feels lazily anticlimactic.

I don’t regret seeing Carrie because, well, I’m me and would have felt my life unlived if I’d missed it. That being said, the audience behind me debated leaving at intermission, while a couple sitting to my left right openly guffawed at Mrs. White’s final gesture. It’s not a good show, nor is it so bad it’s Love Never Dies good. For me, that’s a far bigger crime than bloody school pranks or electrocuting the student body.


  1. Interesting: I saw more of a lighter, comedic take on Carrie last year at a local, hole in the wall theatre in Philly and loved it. The guy (yep) playing Carrie was decent but the woman who played Ms. White and the woman who played the gym teacher stole the show. There were a few added nuances to make the audience laugh and the music used definitely added to the tone of the play.

    You seem to see something done on a bigger stage as lackluster and I can understand that a bit. I'm not a huge theatre person so you certainly know more about it than I do.

  2. There's a Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown musical?! That's surprising! (Though it really shouldn't surprise me too much, I have seen Keating: The Musical We Had To Have after all.)

  3. Ashlee: I don't know that it was the larger scale that hurt Carrie. I think it was more the hesitation to do anything that COULD be considered campy. The show was almost too earnest for its own good. I would have LOVED to see the production you saw!

    Yes Chris, there WAS a musical that lasted about a month. In addition to LuPone, it had a pretty stellar Broadway vet cast (tony winners Laura Benanti & Brian Stokes Mitchell, plus a surprisingly decent Justin Guarini). It was pretty awful.

  4. This review bums me out, because I have watched that particular DVD featurette more times than is healthy, and each time I've been fascinated by it. Betty Buckley really wrings the drama out of her story, i.e. when she talks about the audience booing one moment then giving a standing ovation the next. You listen to her and you wish you could have been there that night.

    At this point, Carrie should just go the Evil Dead: The Musical/Gallagher route and have a splash zone near the stage.

    Oh, god, I just thought of something. They could make it one of those immersive theatrical experiences where the entire show is Carrie's prom, the theater is made to look like a cheaply-decorated high school gym, and audience members attend in bad tuxedos and ugly prom dresses. The spectators, you see, become students at the Bates High prom and the action occurs all around them. This could be superlative... and a major fire hazard and insurance risk as well!

    I'm not even kidding about this. I really want to do this show. I wouldn't even call it Carrie. I'd call it Bates High Prom '76 or something, and it would play either near Halloween or during the actual prom season. Before the show, cast members would distribute ballots for prom king and queen. The guy playing William Katt's role would wear the most ridiculous blond wig ever. The songs would be the ones from the movie -- "I Never Knew Someone Like You Could Love Someone Like Me" and that one about the "education blues" that the prom band plays. My brain is buzzing with ideas for this already.

    Goddamnit, why am I not a theatrical impresario?

  5. Wayne, if I could vote you president of the universe, you would be emperor. I want--nay, I NEED--this immersive Carrie experience. Can we always have one special contest winner who gets to arrive at the show driven in the Christine car???