Tuesday, March 6, 2012

REVIEW: Carrie

Review of the Saturday, March 3 matinee.  MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York City, NY.   Starring Molly Ranson, Marin Mazzie, Christy Altomare, Carmen Cusack, Jeanna de Waal, Derek Klena, Ben Thompson and Wayne Alan Wilcox.  Based upon the novel by Stephen King.  Book by Lawrence D. Cohen.  Music by Michael Gore. Lyrics by Dean Pitchford.  Choreography by Matt Williams.  Direction by Stafford Arima.  2 hours, 5 minutes, including intermission.  Language, sexual situations, stylized violence.

Grade: A-

The tiny set, designed by David Zinn - an ashen ruin of a school gymnasium - in the tiny Lucille Lortel Theatre turns out to be a striking metaphor for this reincarnation of the musical Carrie, re-imagined by its authors and a very daring director, Stafford Arima.  The show, as it stands now, is a small shell of what it used to be.  In place of gargantuan sets and copious amounts of blood is a stripped-to-the-walls stage space, bare except for some doors, a few chairs and a crudely arranged shrine to the Virgin Mary.  But don't let its smaller scale fool you.  The effect amplifies rather than diminishes the tragedy that unfolds before you in just over 2 hours.  (It feels so much shorter, really.)   Carrie's life is an epic tale on a human scale, with its emotional excesses and sharply drawn villains, and the even more acutely drawn tragic flaws of her own.  Part cautionary tale, part Shakespearean tragedy - with pretty clear nods to both King Lear and Macbeth - this new version of the story succeeds on nearly every level, not the least of which is a viable musical with great potential.  "She's not like other girls" the ads state rather cheekily.  She sure isn't.  And she has come a long way since her Broadway debut nearly 25 years ago.  In stripping away all of the excess, Arima and company have found the real Carrie and Carrie.

Molly Ranson as Carrie White

Much has been written about how this version is "of our time" with its "ripped from the headlines" story of a child bullied in school and getting revenge on the people who drive her over the edge.  Carrie White is a misunderstood outsider, etc. etc.  The truth is, this story of a special person who acts out with the power given to her based on half truths, missing information and ill-informed assumptions, is even more timeless than getting picked on at school.  That it takes on a more pressing urgency - there was another school shooting just days before I saw the show - is a bonus.  One of the best things about this re-imagining is that while Carrie is the misfit of all misfits, so, too, are all the others in her life.  There is, of course, her mother, a religious fanatic so scorned by Carrie's absent father that she has turned into a hermit of sorts.  There is the kind gym teacher, who tries to nurture Carrie in the basics of becoming a woman, but clearly has had trouble in that area herself.  And there are Carrie's peers, each one a misfit on their own, but all of whom have managed to hide their differences behind the accouterments of American teenage life - smart phones, Twitter, slutty clothes and a too-cool-for-school attitude.  The bad girl of the class hides her shortcomings behind a parent who spoils her.  The bad boy hides his fear of growing up behind a foul mouth and some dangerous looking tattoos.  The good boy jock hides his real passion, writing, behind the cocky swagger of a star athlete, while his good girl girlfriend tries desperately not to be so good.  In fact, all of the characters have something to hide and are barely successful at it.  Only sweet, naive Carrie, who hasn't been taught or given the tools to cope, sticks out in the crowd.  And she is easy prey.

I bring up all of this back story and thematic analysis to point up just how much great work has been done on the piece.  It is a very emotional, highly entertaining musical that everyone can relate to.  Carrie's special powers leave us in awe, but don't overwhelm us, and more importantly, we can now relate to all of the characters on the stage.  We are forced to admit that we are all part Carrie, and also like at least one other character on that stage.  Carrie is unnervingly relatable.  But, with this new found relatablity also comes one of the few areas that still needs work.

Set design by David Zinn
The Ensemble (left to right): Elly Noble, Ben Thompson, Andy Mientus,
Derek Klena, Christy Altomare, Jen Sese, F. Michael Haynie,
Blair Goldberg, Jeanna de Waal and Corey Boardman

Stephen King's novels, including Carrie, work so well psychologically because he goes into the heads of all the characters, letting readers know what makes each tick.  Lawrence B. Cohen's book and Dean Pitchford's lyrics have really fleshed out the inner workings of Carrie and Margaret White.  Those scenes, including the songs "And Eve Was Weak," "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance," "When There's No One," and the title song/aria are notoriously well-constructed and have been brilliantly polished here.  The number "Unsuspecting Hearts" goes a long ways toward fleshing out the gym teacher's role, and both of Tommy's numbers, "Dreamers in Disguise" and "You Shine," a duet with girlfriend Sue, also really do a lot to explain what motivates the "good kids."

But other attempts to illuminate the rest of the kids are less successful, especially "The World According to Chris," which only briefly flirts with what really makes the bitchy girl tick.  And in order to be fully emotionally invested in the tragic end to the story, we also need to be emotionally invested in the lives that are lost before us.  More about Chris. (Why is she so angry?  Why does she attack the weakness in everyone?) More about Miss Gardner.  (What does she see in Carrie that reminds her of herself?)  More about Sue.  (Why is she so driven to be perfect?  Why does she make one mistake and go so far to correct it?)  And why does Carrie's mother disappear instead of fight to keep Carrie home?

Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson

In a time when you hear theatre-goers say things like, "they could cut 20 minutes," it seems strange to say that Carrie might benefit from just a bit more.  Some supporting character development, a new song for Chris and maybe a huge quintet number (think West Side Story - another epic tragedy) between Carrie, Tommy, Sue, Chris and Margaret as they all get set to leave for the prom.  The opening numbers of each act, "In" and "A Night We'll Never Forget" are a nice start toward establishing the ensemble.  Both are coolly stylized numbers that are exciting to watch, but could use a little more of a revealing bite.

That said, Carrie has sure come a long way.  In fact, I hope they are still working on it and planning a bigger future for it.  Much of the success of this particular production, though, comes from its flawless casting and slick presentation.  Kevin Adams (as usual) has provided masterfully moody lighting that enhances but never detracts from any given scene or circumstance, and the equally masterful Sven Ortel has once again set a high standard for the use of projections.  Like the lighting, they enhance the scenes, they don't take away from them.  Jonathan Deans' sound design is nearly a character of its own.  I can still feel the creepy chill of the opening, ghostly sound effects, and the heart pounding rumble of sound pulsing through me as Carrie unleashes her fury at the prom.  It was horror film scary!  And special notice must be given to Matthew Holtzclaw's "special effects."  I sat in the front row, and I'll be damned if I can explain the moving chairs, exploding light bulbs and floating Virgin Mary.  (The wonder of live theatre as it is happening, not after you think about it!)  Doug Besterman's orchestrations and Mary-Mitchell Campbell's arrangements of Michael Gore's score make a small band sound huge, and also make me long for a larger production with a fuller orchestra.

The Fury of Carrie White

Mr. Arima's direction is alternately theatrical - mostly the stylized way of showing us high school gym and English classes - and severely austere - the stunning scenes between Carrie and her mother.  The  two styles clash and complement each other in such a way that they are both jarring and highly emotional.  Matt Williams' choreography is similarly a mixture of stylized movement and grounded-in-reality dance moves.  Particularly effective is both artists' use of silhouette.

I think you'd be hard pressed to imagine a better cast production than this one, from top to bottom.  The ensemble is full of standout performances, particularly the social climbing horny girl played by Blair Goldberg, the fun-loving yearbook/school announcement kid, F. Michael Haynie, and the almost out of the closet kid, played with refreshing zeal and uniqueness by Corey Boardman.  Andy Mientus, Elly Noble and Jen Sese also make good impressions in their various moments with Carrie in particular.

Wayne Alan Wilcox does everything he can with the most under-written role (and with the greatest potential) as Mr. Stephens, the encouraging English teacher.  Carmen Cusack is wonderful as Miss Gardner, equal parts sass, no nonsense and heart of gold.  Her Southern twang and warm eyes are endearing and her rendition of "Unsuspecting Hearts" is a highlight of the show.  More of both, please.

It is to Christy Altomare's credit that Sue is more than a sickeningly sweet good girl.  She has her flaws and shows them especially well under the glare of interrogation lights (Sue is being interviewed about "events" as a framing device for the show.)  She looks the part, with her lovely eyes and soft smile, and she sings beautifully.  And even though the script needs to clarify why she is so willing to give up the prom for Carrie, Miss Altomare is strong enough that we follow along willingly no matter how implausible.  Derek Klena has taken what could be a smarmy role and made it believable and interesting.  Sure, he has all-American looks - more Sears catalogue than Abercrombie and Fitch for this show - and a smile that surely breaks hearts in real life, but Mr. Klena also manages to show us a vulnerable and hidden guy underneath the popular jock stereotype.  And can he sing - not the bombastic stylings so popular in modern musicals, but good old-fashioned good to the ears singing, with a sincerity to match.

Jeanna de Waal and Ben Thompson
"A Night We'll Never Forget"

Both Jeanna de Waal and Ben Thompson are alumni of American Idiot, and it is clear that their edginess in Carrie has been informed by that experience.  Both take the hard-edged, hard-assed American teenager to new levels here.  They both give gutsy, raw performances that are inhibited only by the shortcomings of the script as I mentioned above.

The real stars of the show, of course, are, and always will be, Margaret and Carrie White.  And it is hard to imagine a better pair than Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson.  Mazzie has got to be the most under-rated musical theatre actress in America today.  Why she isn't spoken of in the same breath as LuPone, Buckley and Lansbury is a mystery to me.  What a performance!  Brilliant in it understatement, gorgeous in its excess, and breathtaking in its emotion, this is another star turn in a career full of them.  Should she take this to Broadway, the Tony is hers.  Trust me when I say a performance this good comes around so rarely, you should not miss it.  I thought Betty Buckley's "And Eve Was Weak" was incredible (and it is), but with Ms. Mazzie, it is show unto itself.  I couldn't stand up fast enough at the curtain call when she came out.  Which probably worked out better because she enters the curtain call with Carrie, herself, Molly Ranson, who is brilliant all on her own.  No, brilliant doesn't cut it.  Ranson's performance as Carrie, coupled with Mazzie as Margaret is the stuff of theatrical legend.  The kind of legend that 20 years from now, theatre fans will all say they saw, and probably didn't.

Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson as
Margaret and Carrie White

From her soft brown, tear-filled eyes, to her sunny smile, Ranson has you on Carrie's side from the get-go.  She sings with the clarity and ease of the best Broadway belters and has such a presence you can't stop watching her.  Her abject terror at getting her first period and not knowing what it is is both chilling and heart-breaking.  Her reactions to the bullying she endures will make you examine the way you treat people, and the sly strength she gathers from finally realizing what makes her special makes you want to shout encouragement to her.  But it is her naiveté that everything will be fine at the prom that will reduce you to tears.  Her innocent beauty in her handmade prom gown is so tragic it is hard to watch.  As terrific as she is at showing Carrie's vulnerability, though, Miss Ranson, really shows that she has "it" in scenes where she comes into her own strength.  Watching her realize how to use her telekinesis, and ultimately destroying everything she has come to love with it, is no less than terrifying.  Her final scenes are hold-your-breath riveting.

Carrie at the Prom

To call this version of Carrie the musical an improvement over its previous incarnation is both obvious and a gross understatement.  This production proves that there is a viable musical in this Shakespearean style tragedy after all.  Humanizing the story and de-camping it has it "almost there."  I just wish there was more.  Something tells me Carrie and Carrie aren't quite finished yet.  After all, she's not like the other girls.

(Photos by Joan Marcus, used by permission from MCC Theatre and O + M Co.)

@jkstheatrescene (Twitter), jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com (email) or leave your Comments below!


  1. Jeff...really? "Billy Elliot" still gets a B-, and this is worthy of an A??? I don't think so...

  2. I suppose it is a matter of scale. And how successfully the complete package holds together for me. I was pretty completely lost in the world of CARRIE. It flew by, and I was disappointed when it was over. There were many moments like that for me in BILLY ELLIOT, too. But not consistently. That's the difference between an A- and a B- for me. Thanks for reading and for your input! Jeff

  3. If it's a matter of scale, BE is epic. It's about Billy, about his father, about his mother, about his grandmother, about his grandfather, about his brother, about his teacher, about his best friend, about his community, about his craft, about his future. It's about SO much. I agree - "Carrie" aspires to something better than what it was, 24 years ago. I hope the writers continue to work on it- there's a good story in there. And good for MCC for extending the run. That said, it does not approach the scope of BE. But I wish it well.


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