This past Tuesday I got to see one of the last preview performances of the much-anticipated revival of Carrie at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. I had been looking forward to it for a long time and after getting lost on the way to the theater and fearing that I may miss my chance I finally got to take my seat and experience the show.
Carrie White- Molly Ranson
Margaret White- Marin Mazzie
Sue Snell- Christy Altomare
Tommy Ross- Derek Klena
Chris Hargensen- Jeanna de Waal
Billy Nolan- Ben Thompson
Miss Gardner- Carmen Cusack
Mr. Stephens- Wayne Alan Wilcox
This was only my second time seeing an Off-Broadway show and the theater was the smallest I’ve ever seen so despite our seats being in the second-to-last row of the orchestra we were very close to the stage and got to see every facial expression and drop of sweat from the performers. The show began with Sue Snell in a single spotlight being interrogated by police regarding the “alleged” events of the prom night disaster. I like this idea. It was used in the made-for-tv movie version of Carrie and relates to the way Stephen King wrote the novel with occasional references to fictional studies on Carrie and the disaster. There were some problems I had with this device though. For one thing it occasionally disrupted the flow of the narrative by suddenly stopping the story to have Sue answering more questions and thereby setting up the next scene, rather than the story progresing organically. The other problem I had with it was that it started making Sue the protagonist of the story. She seemed to be given more development and more reason for the audience to sympathize with her than Carrie.
Sue’s dialogue leads into the opening number “In” which I loved in the original production and was unsure how I felt about the re-write but I loved it. The song, originally a jazzy workout routine performed by the girls in gym class is now a more angsty number performed by all the teens but it still works the same and sets the idea that there is a desperate need in these students to fit in and a near-paralyzing fear of being the outcast, perfectly setting up for the entrance of our title character who feels the same as her classmates, but has never managed to make her way “In”.
Carrie is played well by Molly Ranson though she seems stronger and more aggressive than bullied and brow-beaten. Still there’s a distinct wounded aspect to her portrayal which is appropriate. She sings the title song with much more ferocity than Linzi Hately did in the original but I wish the song had been more re-written or removed entirely. It’s never really spoken to me and just seems silly from the very first screamed line of “That’s not my naaaaame!” in response to the students’ taunts of “Scary White”.
Marin Mazzie’s portrayal of Margaret White is very gentle and toned-down. Rather than constant fire-and-brimstone condemnation she instead has bi-polar swings of serenity and ferocity. While I appreciate the attempt to humanize her because I hate to see Christians portrayed as caricatures and stereotypes rather than characters, I think this character in this story really needs that rigidness. Again, the audience’s sympathy is taken away from Carrie and given to another character instead who is getting more characterization. Her first number “Open Your Heart” is no longer a solo but is sung with a choir in a radio sermon she’s listening to when Carrie comes home and it’s a beautiful way to handle the song which I really liked. Unfortunately “And Eve Was Weak” lacked the punch that it should have. The sparse band can’t convey the power that the full orchestra could in the original production and Mazzie, though a phenomenal singer, doesn’t do the song its justice. Her acting is intense and frightening but her voice just doesn’t seem to fit the number.
As we see more of the students we see some of the improvements over the original. The teenagers are much more realistic (no spandex bodysuits for one thing!) and though some of their dialogue still seems a bit out of touch with modern teens and the bully’s taunts still seem more like middle school playground antics than cutting high school jabs, there is much more to like now among the high schoolers. Derek Klena plays Tommy Ross wonderfully with a youthful charm and easy friendliness that make it easy to believe him as the kind of guy everyone likes in high school. Christy Altomare does well with Sue and the two make a really sweet couple. Their new duet “You Shine” is a very nice number that gives their relationship some grounding. Jeanna de Waal and Ben Thompson are great as the bullies Chris and Billy, especially Ben who looks to be taking delicious joy in his cruelty. The standout for me in the ensemble was Blair Goldberg as Norma who was able to grab my attention in all of the company scenes and had some funny lines.
The production has one real problem though, and that is being so afraid of approaching the campiness of the original. The show is so dreadfully serious and somber in tone that despite the occasional laughs (sometimes unintentional) and scares it feels a bit lifeless. In fear of ever going over the top the show never really rises up, staying simple and plain from start to finish. It may sound like I’m changing my tune since my post about the original flop claimed that its problem was going too far from reality but this production going all the way to the other extreme doesn’t right that wrong; it shows that the story needs a grounding in reality but spikes of true drama and suspense.
This problem is most strongly evident in the Prom scene. The iconic, dramatic, cathartic pig’s blood scene is dry, oddly non-literal, and leads to a confusing destruction scene. The blood-dumping is done entirely through projections. The sillhouette of the bucket tips and blood pours out. At the moment the spillage raches Carrie’s head the whole stage is covered in a projection of a tidal wave of blood sloshing and splashing and sound effects of crashing water pound through the speakers. When the music begins Carrie stands bathed in red lights, sings some repeated lines like in the original, and the company begins going through some choreographed slow-motion agony. Suddenly projections of fire spread across the stage, the suffering becomes less choreographed, then Carrie exits the stage as the students die.
This is really a disappointing scene, unfortunately. It seems more or less like a lateral move from the original as it still has the same problems, just handled differently. Whereas in the original the blood-dumping caused problems because they were worried about damaging Carrie’s mic and making a sloppy, dangerous stage for the cast and was handled by using a small amount of very thick blood that Linzi was pretty much responsible for spreading on her own face, this time the effect is no more convincing as Carrie is clearly dry and simply tinted red by lights. In the original the fire was represented by lasers and flashpots which added some excitement but felt pretty empty. In the original though there was at least some reason for the fire at the prom, as Carrie demonstrates pyrokinetic abilities at least twice in the show prior to the destruction scene which upset some fans since her abilities were only supposed to be telekinetic as in the book and film. In this production her abilities are only telekinetic once again, so where does the fire come from at the prom? The original had better orchestrations and created a better sense of being trapped by dropping a safety curtain which really boxed in the company onstage and had Sue on the outside trying to reach the students within. The revival wins in making the audience care about the people who are dying though, which is a marked improvement and deserves credit.
The show ends with Carrie returning home (when she enters the stage again she is soaked in blood) and going to her mother for comfort. Margaret sings a beautiful little lullaby to Carrie before plunging a knife into her back, hoping to return Carrie to God before Satan can claim her soul.
In a fit of fear Carrie uses her powers to stop her mother’s heart and this is illustrated much clearer than in the original as she holds out her hand, stops Margaret in her tracks, and slowly clenches her fist as the sound effect of a heartbeat slows and chokes out and Margaret falls dead. Immediately after, however, Carrie screams and in the first instance of sympathy I felt for the character she agonizes over losing control and killing the only person she loved. Sue finds Carrie (having followed the trail of destruction, according to her police interview) and tries to comfort her. Carrie dies in Sue’s arms and she lays her down before a single spotlight focuses on Sue and we hear the police asking Sue for her name as they did in the opening interview before the blackout.
The show has made some great improvements over its source. While there were some aspects I thought were better in the original and the revival still isn’t really great, it has gotten closer to greatness than the 1988 production. I definitely recommend seeing the show if you get a chance. It’s interesting, has some good music, and just being able to say you saw Carrie, even though it’s not the infamous flop production, is worth the trip🙂