17 February 2012

‘Carrie: The Musical’

Molly Ranson and Marin Mazzie in Carrie.
Illustration by WVM©
Blurry photo of the drawing also by WVM©

Carrie, a musical by Michael Gore (music), Dean Pitchford (lyrics), and Lawrence D. Cohen (book, based on his screenplay for Brian DePalma, based on the novel by, you know, Stephen King), is currently in previews at New York’s Lucille Lortel Theatre. Tremendous interest surrounds the production, not least because, in 1988, it was the biggest flop in Broadway musical history, breaking the records that Rags had set.

Now, previews aren’t supposed to be reviewed by professional critics. The cast and creative team are still allowed to make changes (and even mistakes). However, I paid full price for my tickets, and other bloggers have gone to town and back already since previews began. Moreover, while Carrie has been “reimagined,” the material is familiar, and it probably behooves the producers to smile when I say that the new version is far better than the reputation of the original. Just the same, my ethics and my respect for the process impose a certain degree of restraint — such as opening with the reminder that every single thing I saw and heard could change completely by the time the show opens, on March 1.

But a few observations are in order, and the first of these is how many problems remain with a famously troubled show. Carrie has been in workshop for something like a year, and playing at the Lortel for a few weeks already. The DePalma movie on DVD features a brief interview with Cohen about the Broadway misadventure, and watching it, I understand why he hadn’t made more improvements: he doesn’t seem to believe the show needs any, preferring instead to blame the stage director of the original production (Terry Hands, of the Royal Shakespeare Company).

A scene from the 1988 production.

The show’s biggest problem — an excess of earnestness — is new, however, and it will disappoint anybody who comes looking for a camp extravaganza. The show’s creative team seems overmuch impressed with topicality: Carrie is among other things a story about bullying, a subject that’s captured public attention lately. Understandably moved by terrible news stories, the creative team has responded with its collective heart, instead of its head.

The catch is that Carrie isn’t a show about a normal girl who gets bullied: it’s not an After-School Special, any more than it’s an episode of Family starring Sada Thompson and Kristie McNichol just because a mother-daughter relationship is central to the story. I needed less earnestness and more weirdness.

Not exactly an After-School Special
on the consequences of bullying.

Starting with Carrie White herself. When she first enters, during an onstage volleyball game, she’s wearing gym clothes and she looks much like everybody else. So did Sissy Spacek, in the first scene of the DePalma movie, and in the next scene, naked in the gym shower, Spacek actually looked quite beautiful. But to an audience in 1975, she was a bit of a freak, thin, with those huge eyes and that tiny nose, her pale hair hanging limp and — without makeup — her eyelashes almost white.

Molly Ranson, the young actress playing Carrie in this production, is sweet-faced, adorable-looking, really. But her hairstyle isn’t all that much different from those of any of the other girls onstage, and the principal difference in costuming (once we move past the gym-class sequence) is that her skirt is much longer and her sweater a bit bulkier. A few more visual clues could have heightened our understanding that, no matter how Carrie tries, she is not in fact like the other girls.

Musically, too, there was little about the role to set her apart from the others. Consider the way that a not-terribly gifted composer, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, makes clear that Eva Duarte Perón isn’t like anyone else, the minute she opens her mouth: she’s strident, aggressive, taking odd harmonic lines, standing out.* Gore and the music director–arranger, Mary-Mitchell Campbell, don’t even begin to explore the possibilities — though I’m confident that Ranson could rise to the challenge.**

Molly Ranson, a Carrie for the 21st century

The trick is that there should be a moment when we in the audience are in Sue Snell’s position: no matter how nice we are, no matter how nice Amy Irving was in the movie or Christy Altomare is here, we should react negatively to Carrie’s strangeness — so that we, like Sue, spend most of the rest of the evening feeling guilty and wanting to atone.

Carrie functions in its way rather like a Classical drama: we understand better the conflicts of our own lives when we see them portrayed by someone so much larger than life. Terry Hands proved pretty clearly that Carrie White isn’t a Jacobean princess, but she does function as an Aristotelian protagonist in some ways — notably, she’s like Medea, another tragic witch. Once we understand the harm that has been done to her, we root for her to exact her vengeance — but when she begins to do just that, according to her own internal logic, we recoil. Euripides set up his story this way for a reason, and so presumably did Stephen King, Brian DePalma, and Lawrence D. Cohen himself.

In short, Carrie’s supernatural powers invest her with a heightened command over our terror and pity, from which we may learn something. And that goal surely chimes with the creative team’s earnest interest in making an anti-bullying statement.

Mazzie and Ranson

The quality of the singing proved one of the evening’s greatest pleasures. Marin Mazzie, playing Margaret White, Carrie’s fanatical mother, is a known quantity, whose classical training gives her access to color and range that few other Broadway divas can match. As I observed when I saw her Lili Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate several years ago, Mazzie has a fearlessness that reminds me of the late Elizabeth Montgomery, a beautiful blonde who was perfectly willing to mug and grimace in service of the comedy she played on Bewitched. Mazzie doesn’t play Margaret White for laughs, but it’s a thoroughly unglamorous performance just the same, and thoroughly compelling, too.

Carrie should be a star-making part for Molly Ranson. Hers is a big, gorgeous voice, supple and even and clear. I didn’t get the impression that her acting skills are yet on a par with her singing talent, but this young woman is clearly destined for the best that musical theater can provide her. (In the ever-optimistic spirit that there will still be musical theater worthy of the name.) And Christy Altomare is sensational as Sue, a tough acting job with singing assignments almost every bit as challenging.

Some of the pitfalls that I might have expected turn out to pose no significant problem in the staging. Cohen’s book relies very heavily on his screenplay, but that turns out to be an excellent starting point for the stage adaptation, and director Stafford Arima has found theatrical tricks that give an audience the sort of thrills and spectacle that fans of the DePalma movie must expect. While the cast is tiny, the stage seldom feels underpopulated.

As proof that responses may differ widely, be it noted that Patrick loved the show and found it meaningful and moving; he also admired the score. I’m less enthusiastic, as you’ve seen, but I’ll confirm that there are many good reasons to see Carrie: The Musical, and only a few of them have anything to do with the show’s unhappy history. Is this an unjustly neglected masterpiece? No. Neither is it a so-bad-it’s-good sideshow. Carrie is just a surprisingly modest attempt to tell a good story through music, and it’s worth taking a look and a listen.

You probably don’t need to be told anything about this picture.

*NOTE: The Madonna movie screwed up Evita’s musical characterization by transposing the music to lower registers more comfortable to the star, who, for all her virtues, is no Patti LuPone.

**The program also credits an orchestrator (Doug Besterman) and a “vocal designer,” whatever that means, by the name of AnnMarie Milazzo. With so many people involved, tweaking Carrie’s music might be quick work — if only they’d get started.

Due to an editing error in the original posting of this essay, Molly Ranson’s last name was misspelled. Thanks to the anonymous reader who pointed out my mistake.

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