Carrie Is Back: The Resurrection and the Life

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Joan Marcus

Carrie. Just the name is enough to provoke shivers of fear and anticipation in the bones of any theater buff. In 1988 a musical version of Stephen King’s horror novel (filmed memorably in 1976 by Brian de Palma) opened on Broadway, got slammed by the critics and closed after five performances — leaving behind a reputation as the biggest bomb in Broadway history.

And there the show might have lain, a perpetual gag line for the theater in-crowd. (Not Since Carrie is the title of a book about Broadway musical flops.) But now the original creators of the show — composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford and book writer Lawrence D. Cohen — have chosen to resurrect it, rewriting the book and reworking the score for a new, scaled-down off-Broadway production that has just opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village.

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Not surprisingly, the redo has drawn great interest. But to what end? To reexamine a famously reviled show and see if an injustice was done? Or to give a new generation of musical-theater nerds (you know, the 250 people who are still watching Smash) a chance to see a legendary camp classic and hoot at it all over again?

Judging by the snickers I heard in the audience, and many of the reviews, it looks like mostly the latter. But this new Carrie is definitely worth having. Much of it is surprisingly good. And what’s not so good made me want to go back in time (maybe courtesy of another Stephen King novel) and see that much-derided Broadway original. Somewhere in between, there might be a great musical.

Carrie White, you’ll recall, is a high school misfit, sheltered by her religious-fanatic mother, who becomes the school laughingstock when she freaks out in the gym shower at having her first menstrual period. This particular wallflower, however, has a way of getting back at her tormentors: telekinetic powers, which she unleashes in the climactic (and justly famous) prom scene, in which she gets drenched in pig’s blood as a prank, and responds by turning the school into Tornado Alley.

For the new production, director Stafford Arima (off-Broadway’s Altar Boyz) has taken out most of the pop excess that reputedly marred the original. Instead of rock-opera spectacle (this was the era of Les Miz, Phantom of the Opera, Chess), the new version is more naturalistic and sober-minded. It takes seriously the resonant story about high school bullying and a toxic mother-daughter relationship. There’s been some inoffensive updating (“Norma’s already posted about it,” says one girl, staring at her smartphone after Carrie’s school meltdown), but the bullying theme, to the creators’ good fortune, has gained an obvious currency on its own.

Carrie’s score is composed of perfectly acceptable, sometimes stirring ‘80s-era pop-rock. At minimum, it does what a musical score should do: it moves the show along, illuminates the characters and deepens the emotions — especially when the wild-eyed, steely-voiced Marin Mazzie, as the zealot mother, belts out “When There’s No One,” the Act II stunner about the prospect of killing her own daughter. Molly Ranson, a relative musical neophyte, has a voice nearly as strong, and she convincingly manages Carrie’s transition from dysfunctional ugly-duckling to revenge-seeking swan.

I would fault the book, and probably the director, for going a little soft. The class bullies are actually a pretty spineless bunch; most of them come around to Carrie’s side so easily that the story becomes one of a single bad girl — the bitch with the pig’s blood — who just can’t get with the program. And the prom scene remains a tough nut to crack on stage. If this version avoids the garish extremes that reportedly drew laughter in 1988, the blood-red lighting-and-projection effects don’t have enough oomph. Extremism in the pursuit of a stage climax is not necessarily a vice.

Still, this Carrie has real weight and emotional conviction, and it engaged me more than a lot of musicals I’ve seen lately. On Broadway these days, being facetious is easy (Rock of Ages, Book of Mormon). Being serious is the real daredevil challenge. The few musicals that succeed at it (Miss Saigon, Spring Awakening) usually protect themselves from ridicule by setting their stories in distant times and places. Carrie tries to turn ordinary, all-too-familiar high school angst into the stuff of tragedy. The show has guts.