Carrie The Musical

A structural problem persists in the re-imagined and very good revival of Carrie The Musical.  Perhaps most famous for being one of the most expensive flops in theatrical history — at the cost of more than $7M in 1988, and playing 16 previews and 5 performances — the new production at the Lucille Lortel, by the MCC Theater, manages to (almost, very mostly) escape the issue, and you should go see it.

In the true vein of post-modernism, where nothing is ever original, the images that the audience will bring with them to the theater are surely from Brian DePalma’s 1976 film version of Stephen King’s 1974 novel, which stars Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, both in Academy Award-nominated performances.  Molly Ranson, as Carrie, you’ll be happy to know, brings something else to the role — fresh, bright, likeable, honest — and after only a week of performances, she seems already at home in the character.  (The show opens officially on March 1.)  She is heartbreaking as the “nice” Carrie, and perhaps as the run goes on, she will be able to bring out the “bad” Carrie more forcefully.  Her voice is strong and clear.

An acting teacher I once had used to give us movies to watch, “Do it exactly like that,” she would tell us — not that we would create an imitation, but because the images, and perhaps style, would give us a place to start, some idea of what we could choose to do with the role, because we were teenagers and had little else to go on, save for images.  Perhaps it’s unfair to ask Ms. Ranson to channel Ms. Spacek, and she is already an accomplished actor, not a teenager, but she is still very fragile even as Carrie is locking the doors and burning the school to the ground, and I wanted her to transform more — to embrace the monster that she is.

Whether you see Carrie as a monster, however, depends on which lens you choose to view her through.  Is she a victim of her mother’s religious rage against the man who raped her and made her pregnant?  Or is she the hero of a story in which the high school status quo is destroyed in a furious rage of fire and destruction?  And if that, then why does she have to die?  Whether she is hero or victim is, for me, a problem all the way back to the source material.

See, I want Carrie to be the hero.  I want her to win — and in a way, she does.  But it’s not a typical hero story: no series of tasks, no mentor, no real clear accepting of the challenge set before her.  And as it stands, the moral of the story is “If you want to be free from pain and loneliness, you have to die.”  Or, in the case of Sue Snell, “If you want to live, you have to feel guilt for the rest of your life.”  But King’s novels have never been easily categorized.  Perhaps my taste is narrow — but shouldn’t Carrie kill her mother, then go to the prom and then destroy the whole town?  Or perhaps this is what I want from my own post X-Men childhood, when the tortured outsider embraces her inborn talent to become more powerful than the society that betrays her.

Photographs by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The question when turning some other existing thing into a musical becomes: What story are you trying to tell?  The musical doesn’t seem sure.  Carrie’s telekinetic powers — a major force in the novel — in this version acts as a teaser, a plot-pushing device, and it’s never really explored to the fullest, or revealed to be a reason for Carrie’s sense of outsider-ness.  (There are some fantastic tricks and surprises with chairs and lights and statues.)

Being a longstanding Disciple of Bernadette, Marin was a revelation for me, and she gives a masterclass in musical theater with “When There’s No One.”  It’s rare that you hear a singer with such vocal power, a strong physical presence, and fierce acting chops fall apart so…interestingly.  She completely loses herself to the forward momentum of Carrie’s journey, but without any regret.  She is spectacular.  What Ms. Mazzie’s Margaret isn’t is batshit crazy, as Ms. Laurie played it, but that seems okay, except that the stakes between Carrie and her mother thus seem lower.

There will surely be a cast album in the future, but for the moment, you can hear a bootleg of Ms. Mazzie on YouTube from the 2009 reading.  However, this song — gorgeous, meaningful, beautiful — wants to be the big 11 o’clock number, and last night’s audience went totally bonkers when Ms. Mazzie finished, screaming and hollering.  But it isn’t the big number, it’s the slow moment right before the big destructive finish.  Of course we all know what happens at the prom, and after the big bucket-of-blood-moment, Carrie has a song which sorta fucks with the pace.  There is no race to the finish.

The MCC production avoids camp completely — which is probably a good thing, ultimately.  Though, one misses it.  A bit.  The mostly gay audience found a few places to laugh at the played-straight moments.

The rest of the cast busies themselves doing a lot of small acting in the background of scenes, which manages to always be bigger than it needs to be, and ultimately feels unneeded.  The chorus of actors playing the high school kids seem very excited to hit their marks, be “real” in the scene, and fill the spaces with their own characters, but in this way the focus can be everywhere.

What happens if we don’t love our children?  Or love our children to much, or in the wrong ways?  What happens when our children have telekinetic powers and, covered in pig’s blood, destroy the whole town?  This revival doesn’t clearly answer any of these questions, but that’s what’s so great about it.  You’ll have a lot to talk about.

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