The 24-year indictment of Carrie as the worst and most expensive flop in Broadway history (it was neither) has finally been liberated by new DNA that has resuscitated a loser with surprising yet undeniable entertainment value. At the Lucille Lortel Theatre down on Christopher Street, cheering “camp” followers of both genders and every persuasion in-between are finally getting a long-anticipated chance to see the ultimate teenage horror spectacular ride again. And it’s not even Halloween. Despite a forgettable score of gospel shouting and bubble gum rock, this Carrie, directed by Stafford Arima with more heart and less gore, finally gets some respect back.
Plagued by an unsalvageable reputation since the original Broadway production was laughed out of town in 1988 after a firing squad of outraged critics and five performances, Carrie has survived quite a punishing trajectory. Unless you’re a newborn infant or you live on the planet Neptune, you already know the history of Carrie, so there’s no need for a spoiler alert: first a Stephen King novella, then a trashy, 1976 Brian De Palma shock film with Sissy Spacek as the ill-fated teenager of the title and an overwrought Piper Laurie as her wacko, religious-nut mother. In 1988, a few hard-working musical collaborators thought Carrie was ready for the stage. The tryout in England starred Barbara Cook, a smart cookie who smelled a rat a mile away and bailed. By the time Carrie opened on Broadway, she had been replaced by Betty Buckley, never a stranger to either mediocrity or hysteria. Critics torched everything, but especially the lurid plotline about a shy 17-year-old high school misfit in rural Maine with a hidden talent for telekinesis named Carrie White, who is first driven to the brink of madness by her neurotic religious psycho of a mother, then reduced to screaming nightmares when she experiences her first period in the gym shower, naively thinking she’s dying and becoming the laughing stock of the senior class. (In the updated and rewritten book, the mean-spirited kids now blog and twitter the gossip before Carrie even gets the bloody towel off.) The school saint, overcome with guilt, talks her own boyfriend, the popular school football hero, into taking Carrie to the prom, but the school bitch and her cruel cronies slaughter a pig and dump Carrie with pig blood. Already over the edge and ready to be institutionalized, Carrie summons her telekinetic powers, wreaks havoc on her enemies to get even, and burns down the gym, killing everyone at the dance, then goes home covered with blood and kills her mother in a murder-suicide—all set to songs that sounded like the score of Is There Life After High School?
Back from the grave in time to cash in on the headlines about campus bullying and high school killing rampages, the new, refined Carrie has nicer characters, fewer flashy effects, more generic songs (“A Night We’ll Never Forget,” about dressing for the prom, replaces the creepy predictions of things to come), a softer focus, an absence of floating bodies and no blood on Carrie’s dress until after the apocalyptic crash and burn is over. Gone are the production numbers about menstruation and pig slaughter accompanied by offstage oinks and squeals. Gone are the empty protests in the press about wasted budgets (the original had an $8 million price tag; the resurrected off-Broadway version costs less than $2 million, which wouldn’t pay for the flying wires in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). No more submental Carrie, reaching for the secret part of her body Victorian pornographers used to call “the forbidden honeypot of throbbing sensuality” while the shower stall is suddenly swimming in blood. In Lawrence D. Cohen’s heavily reworked script, Carrie no longer seems to be having an epileptic fit. Played and sung by the shining, crystal-voiced Molly Ranson, she is transported from freak to fashion plate in her beatific prom dress, looking as luminous as Cinderella at the ball. When tragedy strikes at the moment she is crowned prom queen, instead of shrieking horror-flick special effects, the dance looks photographed through a swirl of green, purple, orange and red gels, like a tutti-frutti Jello mold.
The demented Christian fundamentalist mother, now played by the enchanting Marin Mazzie, is still a Bible-thumping wreck, singing and ranting mostly about sin and salvation, fire and fear (“Pray to Heaven for your wicked soul!” she howls when she discovers that Carrie is turning into a woman), but this accomplished actress wisely provides her with more nuances than clichés. She still whispers her way through the cobweb corridors of a Charles Addams house filled with crosses, candles and the echoes of faded prayers. But even when she is rendered unrecognizable, stripped of makeup in shapeless flour-sack dresses and a long stringy wig the color of garden fertilizer, she gives her all as the lunatic mother, and keeps you going. It must be admitted, she is a far cry from her glamorous work in Camelot and Kiss Me, Kate. But when she opens her golden chops and sings a second-act metaphor for her empty life called “When There’s No One,” she stops the show as only she can. No longer the Bride of Frankenstein, she is as sexually and socially needy and repressed as the younger generation that surrounds her. The applause is still ringing in my ears. The well-rounded cast includes Christy Altomare as sweet Sue, the girl with the conscience, who offers Carrie support and sympathy; Jeanna De Waal as Chris, the blonde Lolita who torments the outcast Carrie to vengeance; Derek Klena as handsome Tommy, the reluctant rescuer who escorts Carrie to her fatal destiny at the prom; Ben Thompson as Billy, the tattooed meathead whose malicious prank sends Carrie to the dark side; and Carmen Cusack as the compassionate gym teacher who tries to instill in Carrie the values of courage and self-confidence. Terrific singers and dancers all, they are uniformly perfect, making the occasional waste of their potential on a generic score lacking in verve and harmony doubly shameful. The timbre of Ms. Ranson’s melodic voice is especially compromised. What a thrill it would be to hear her sharpen her vocal gifts on a real song.
Lawrence D. Cohen’s refurbished book now includes cell phones, iPods, references to Annie Liebowitz, words like “dork” and phrases like “We’re on the same page,” but while the show has both content and visuals, the score is merely serviceable without being in any way remarkable. If I have one caveat it’s the generic jukebox music by Dean Pitchford and the pedestrian lyrics by Michael Gore (“Everything’s gonna be fine/ Because you’re mine”). But all reservations are minor, and do not detract from the overall enjoyment of this attempt to make the story of the misunderstood, miserable underdog in all of us a universal one. You can take your grandmother to Carrie.