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Revival of famous flop 'Carrie' premieres off-Broadway

March 2, 2012 | 10:55 am

Off-Broadway revival of "Carrie"
In theater, as in ghost stories, death isn’t always forever.

An updated revival of the musical “Carrie,” the legendary 1988 Broadway flop based on the 1974 Stephen King novel, opened Thursday night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan’s West Village. 

The 1988 original was a big, gaudy spectacle, whereas this off-Broadway version is Minimalist, bordering on austere. The action has been moved from the 1970s (of both the book and 1976 film by Brian De Palma) to our own time — and this change proves to be shrewd. Religious fanaticism and the bullying of awkward teens is possibly even more topical today than it was in decades past. 

This time, after the mean girls who torment Carrie White in the showers (one of the book and film’s signature scenes), they tweet about it.

Updating the setting to contemporary America — along with some judicious pruning of the original book and score — makes “Carrie” no longer seem like a “catastrophe,” “garish” and “ 'Bye-Bye-Birdie’ gone bonkers” as reviews of the original called it.  (True, other shows have gone on to lose more money and earn more scathing reviews, but Ken Mandelbaum’s 1991 bible on Broadway bombs is titled “Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops.”)

Betty Buckley, who originated the role of Carrie’s abusive, Puritan mother on Broadway (and made her film debut in the movie), came back to see this off-Broadway production. Reached by phone afterward, she said the reason this version is an improvement is simple: “The show always needed a cohesive style.”

Stafford Arima’s production is indeed cohesive. It uses few props and Impressionist video projections that call to mind the artwork of Edward Gorey or the style of Lemony Snicket.  Many — including Buckley — pin the failure of “Carrie” on Broadway to director Terry Hands (then the head of the Royal Shakespeare Company), who added a giant rotating staircase, lasers, yards of spandex and yes, the infamous toga scene. “Terry was a brilliant Shakespearean director, but his missed the Americana in the story. Someone told him that 'Carrie' was like 'Grease,' the musical,” Buckey recalled, “and he thought they meant Greece the country.”

In reviews of opening night, critics largely praised the two leads, Molly Ranson (Carrie) and Marin Mazzie (in the Buckley role), and mostly lauded both the intentions and efforts of Arima and the creative teams' extreme makeover. Yet taking the kitsch factor out of “Carrie,” while certainly an improvement, also comes with a price. The revival, while not laughable, reveals the deeper problem plaguing “Carrie”: a score that just doesn’t work.

Even as Laurence D. Cohen’s revised script translates well to the present day (and is faithful to King’s Gothic tale), Michael Gore’s music and Dean Pitchford’s lyrics seem hopelessly trapped in the 1980s (the two wrote the hit title song from “Fame”).  The score never brings us inside the head of the tortured, telekinetic heroine, it just gives her rock ballads to sing — with banal lyrics like: “I might take a chance, I’ve always wonder how maybe I’ll dance.”  Carrie’s main anthem sounds less like a cry for help and more like a theme song from an '80s sitcom of “Silver Spoons” or “Punky Brewster” vintage. 

“Carrie” may live forever, thanks to its notorious Broadway run, but only in the hearts of its fans.  A Broadway transfer of this scrubbed show seems unlikely, as deep down this “Carrie” remains a bloody mess.

RELATED:

Betty Buckley and Marin Mazzie are on the Segerstrom 2012-13 season

Spring theater preview: 'Waiting for Godot,' 'Hands on a Hardbody'

Justin Long, Chita Rivera head (and head back) to Broadway

— James Taylor

Photo: Molly Ranson and the “Carrie” ensemble. Credit:  Joan Marcus.

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