The relative success or failure of MCC's revival of Carrie, the musical version of the early Stephen King novel, is to some degree in the eye of the beholder. The original production was every bit the clueless extravaganza history makes it out to be, as if Springtime for Hitler had superseded Oklahoma! as the game changer of the 20th Century. But in his desire to rescue the material from the clutches of a staging that made every possible wrong choice, director Stafford Arima has both given legitimacy to its sincerity of intent and exposed the limited toolkit—or maybe it’s just the limited savvy—of its creative team (in particular the songwriting team of lyricist Dean Pitchford and composer Michael Gore; librettist Lawrence D. Cohen fares somewhat better in having fashioned a reasonably solidly structured adaptation). I won’t summarize the story here: I assume its general outline is by now part of the Zeitgeist. But I’ll include a reminder that it’s dark—hinging upon the relationship between the teenage girl of the title (Molly Ranson), constantly belittled by most of her high school peers, who comes from a background of severe and perverse religious suppression and is just entering womanhood; and her single Mom (Marin Mazzie), who is the purveyor of the crippling fanaticism. And a reminder that it’s supernatural: Carrie has telekinetic powers that emerge when she is angry…and that the story is one long build to a circumstance wherein sudden long-pent-up rage unleashes their full force.
Making effective use of the Theatre de Lys' smaller off-Broadway stage, removing the scenic design from anything too presentational, coming up with a poetic (rather than literal) scenic solution to the story's most Grand Guignol and climactic sequence, Mr. Arima means business; and he directs his cast to play for real stakes, and they've been cast, costumed, made up to project as much verisimilitude and authenticity as the artificial construct of musical theatre permits.
But now the musical sends an even more bifurcated signal because of it. For while the authors have written sincerely and without (intentional) camp, they've also written with a facile slickness of expression, unwitting proponents of the school that believes if a colloquial cliche has not previously been set to music, it somehow becomes less a cliche when sung. This isn't merely limited to appropriating titles (e.g. as Sondheim has done with "familiarisms" such as "Now You Know" and "Have I Got a Girl for You" and "You Must Meet My Wife" which he uses to ironic purpose or whose familiarity becomes a point of departure for original variation) but to the entire content of songs themselves, so that most of what's sung seems to announce its purpose anthemically or be a philosophical collection of Hallmark-like homilies, with facile (and not unattractive) music, most drawn from a palate of familiar pop-rock tropes, to match. And of course that undercuts the story's grittier side and blunts its edge. (Perversely, the thing that's missing most from the adaptation is the unique voice, imprimatur and influence of Stephen King.)
Subsequently there are still moments—though FAR fewer than before—that elicit unintended laughter, due to the actors playing conspicuously and self-consciously "written" material with the sincerity of verite humanism. (I hasten to add, I'm not saying the writers are untalented or without skill. Carrie is always at least competent and always at least clear. None of which is minor or easy to achieve, let alone maintain. What I am saying, though, is that the writers don't have a sufficiently refined ear for tone, and seem oblivious to the unsubtle "tells" that betray…to be candid…remarkable naiveté about it.)
has been achieved here is significant enough renovation to have made Carrie one of the season’s most anticipated curiosities; and
enough to have transporter-beamed it out of the Biggest Disasters sandbox. It will
enter the literature—never
as a classic, but as a piece that now has enough of a seal of approval to be
mounted in other venues, by other companies, and in stock and amateur
environments as well. The Stephen King brand, and the off-Broadway testimony
that it can be delivered with relative simplicity, will carry a lot more weight
than any of its innate silliness. And you know what? Short of having a hit,
that’s the game. Keeping the work alive.
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