Monday, March 5, 2012

NEW YORK REVIEW: THE HORROR! THE HORROR! WHERE HAS IT GONE? - 'Carrie' by MCC Theater at The Lucille Lortel Theatre

When asked about the present moment’s appropriateness for a revival of Carrie, the world collectively shouted, “Too soon!” That’s right, the 1988 Stephen King Broadway horror-pop-opera has, like many a mummy, been resurrected – this time by the downtown MCC Theater - and a term that you will see thrown around quite a bit in its wake is “il-fated”. History has rebranded Carrie from “bad” to “il-fated,” as if the original Broadway production collapsed because of godly intervention, rather than overwhelming critical repulsion.

Today, Carrie is synonymous with the word ‘flop’, but here we are, twenty-two years later putting up this “il-fated” show again. And this time, most everyone is in on the joke – well, everyone except for the production itself, which is tip-toeing a fine line between self-seriousness and broad camp. With the weighty legacy that Carrie…well, carries, the play cannot be performed as drama, or even melodrama. It must be tongue-in-cheek or else the musical becomes resoundingly ridiculous.

The story of a troubled girl whose traumatic introduction to womanhood transforms her into a destructive sorceress, as directed by Stafford Arima, has taken the original production’s critical notices to heart, and in so doing, has violently stabbed the already bleeding ticker of the quirky, offbeat musical monstrosity, rendering it into mediocre, run-of-the-mill staged blither blather.

But regardless of its past failure and current cowardice, there are many tireless advocates of the material. And I can totally see why. The score, in particular, is a suprising delight. It has a corrupted pop sensibility that actually marries quite well with its twisted plot, unlike too many of its pop-opera brothers and sisters. The score, I’m sure, is the primary reason the piece has been revisited (however, never before in a legal, fully staged production) over and over again for decades. I would most definitely buy the cast album.

The loud music has been retweaked and tempered for this revival by original composer and lyricist, Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford. The orchestrations are reduced, sounding disparate and quiet. The small, invisible orchestra suits some of the new songs, but hinders the emotional oomph of the old. Included in this revival is a generous helping of brand new numbers and a fair few tunes that many of us recognize only from long passed-down bootlegs - like the epic “And Eve Was Weak,” here sang with uneven retraint by Marin Mazzie as Carrie’s mother Margaret White.

Noticeable changes from the original version in score, book, and visual approach in Arima's production are a diffusion of its jazzercize, eighties exterior in favor of a more modern look and feel – cell phones and Macbooks abound. But it turns out that the show’s original time period is mighty intrinsic, and here lands in a kind of nineties middle-ground. The entire experience, for better or worse, is an awful lot like a midseason episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer without the bite.

The book by Lawrence D. Cohen and score have been doused with sugar and spice and too many things nice, perhaps in an effort reveal what the creators believe to be a more grounded emotional core. But it only serves to betray everything great about the show.
There is a new musical motif in its second half, leading up to prom, “A Night We’ll Never Forget,” that rings ever so starkly of Kidzbop. Although catchy and rhythmically intriguing, songs like “A Night…” and “The World According to Chris,” a pseudo-dance number in which one float in the endless parade of antagonists, Chris (a bitchy, but unmemorable Jeanna De Wall), sings an upbeat manifesto on the benefits cruelty, are at odds with the original score that has balooned Carrie’s oh-so-cultish fanbase.

The sickly sweetness is mimicked by the book, which adds a sequence in which Carrie’s forlorn crush, Tommy (a dreamy Derek Klena) sing-reads a trite poem called ‘Dreamer in Disguise’. Carrie’s world has become so P.C. and apologetic, one wonders what she really has to complain about other than an apparent lack of excitement.

In spite of the drudgery, the play is lifted up by an enthusiastic and gifted ensemble who spiritedly convey new high school life post-Kurt Cobain. Andy Mientus is the most idetifyably cliquey of the crowd, with an attitude displayed through simple presence and hair flips.

Our kind of-anti-heroine, Carrie White is played with splendid isolation by Molly Ransom, known primarily for her performances in plays, Jerusalem and August: Osage County. A weird surprise is Ransom’s comic abilities. She has a strong facility with comedic timing, and I was pleasantly shocked to find that Carrie provided most, if not all, of the performance’s laughs. She sings the part with more power than her small frame lets on.
Margaret White, Carrie’s relgiously obsessive mother, famously played by Betty Buckley, is portrayed by Marin Mazzie, who, while surely off her rocker, is a triffle too subdued. She sings the part well, but the horrendous abuse she commits is absent from her personality. Carrie’s homelife has gotta really suck, and her mother’s violent religious fanaticism must be enormous and architechturally gothic.

The same wonky minimalism is especially present in David Zinn’s scenic design, which, a predominantly stone-gray unit set, attempts in vain to resculpt Carrie as a tiny chamber opera. But the show desperately needs that missing grandiosity - grandiosity implied and vigorously reinforced by the towering music and supernatural content of the book. Putting larger than life circumstances against a decrepid humdrum vacuum is hardly clever, but sorely misguided. With scenes occuring alternatingly in Carrie’s home and at her spunky high school, contrast is a necessity – but all that’s onstage are gray walls and black chairs (Some cool, ungraspable effects, choreographed by Matthew Holtzclaw, involve these chairs) accompanied by pointless projections.

Those projections by Sven Ortel also collaborate with Jonathan Deans’ sound design to approximate the climactic prom scene that made the original film and King novel famous. But rather than using real fake blood to dump on Carrie, the scene is reimagined with bright red light and an obscured title-wave projection paired with a base-heavy swooshing noise.

While that is certainly not a bad idea – perhaps even a wise one given the original production’s previous microphone woes – the moment is a let down, and the subsequent bewitched choreography that follows lacks any real danger or ferocity. The entire sequence is merely a means to an end- a description that aptly fits the whole production. Carrie White is back, and this time, per her expressed wishes, she’s no longer Scary White – she’s just the girl next door.-Johnny Oleksinski

MCC Theater's 'Carrie' plays through April 22 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.