Expectations ran high for the revival of "Carrie the Musical," a notorious Broadway flop that became a cult classic. Would this adaptation of the classic horror novel be good, bad, or so-bad-it's-good? The answer, sadly, is none of the above. "Carrie" is simply OK. The show can't overcome mediocre music and lyrics, but it looks good and proves that Stephen King's novel is a classic, both as a story and as material for a musical.
The show's biggest surprise is its earnest sensibility. It would be easy—maybe too easy—to approach the modern gothic horror from a camp angle. After all, "Carrie" involves a girl who freaks out when gets her first period at age 17, then learns that she has paranormal powers. Then there's the lurid finale at prom, when her rivals humiliate her with a bucket of pig's blood.
Rather than play up the hysteria and produce a hot mess, director Stafford Arima takes his stylistic cues from Stephen King's work. His grimy set (designed by David Zinn) and gloomy lighting (Kevin Adams) evokes Maine's dank climate. A stained grey wall provides a backdrop for ghostly projections that seem like echoes of each place—a school gym, Carrie's dilapidated house—rather than the place itself. The prom element says it's springtime, but the weather is stuck in autumn.
Like most good stories about teenagers, "Carrie" is driven by poor emotional control. Since song can convey emotion like no other art form, it should work as a musical. But Michael Gore's tunes are generic, while the verses fall lazily from the stage as if lyricist Dean Pitchford kept the first rhymes he thought of. After intermission, the show opens with a groaner of a chorus, “You ain't seen nothing yet / It'll be a night you'll never forget.” The orchestration is flat, without texture, swing, or blue notes. It sounds canned, even though it's live.
The ensemble is better than the conventional material. The cast looks like teenagers, not urbane New Yorkers playing dress-up, which gives the action a realistic quality that complements the production's serious approach. The roles don't provide the actors many opportunities for dramatic nuance, another flaw in the book, revised by Lawrence D. Cohen for this production. But some actors find warmer sides to their characters. Christy Altomare and Derek Klena, as the popular couple who want to bolster Carrie's ego without actually becoming her friend, have an all-American chemistry that anchors the show.
The lead role is tougher, since the plot dictates that Carrie can't connect with other people. Molly Ranson looks appropriately awkward, helped by her frumpy outfit, and gives her first-act solo a feral undercurrent that hints at the gory climax. She also finesses the second-act Cinderella metamorphosis by not quite believing the friendliness that her beauty earns her. Too bad Ranson resorts to scary-eyes and claw-hands when her character starts moving objects with her mind.
Like Ranson's telekinetic mugging, Marin Mazzie's performance shows the danger of taking a camp approach to "Carrie." Mazzie, a Tony winner and the show's closest approximation of a grand diva, plays Carrie's born-again Christian mother. So, Mazzie gnashes her teeth and waves her arms in a caricature of a repressive loon. But when she drops the grotesque mask for a second-act solo, she reveals a naked loneliness that makes her character sympathetic despite her flaws. That moment hints at what her performance might have been.
If the production had followed Mazzie's campy lead, the attitude of condescension would delight the snarks but leave most viewers wondering why they bothered to spend their time and money. Taking a tasteless approach to “Carrie” would be the conventional choice, too easy to be worthwhile. By taking King's novel seriously, Arima and company take a risk. They fail about as often as they succeed, but they make this deeply flawed work into a unique evening.