Although I’ve been a musical theater fan for the better part of my life, I’ve never had the obsession with “famous flops” that a number of my friends share. So, although I’ve long been aware that the musical Carrie is one of the famousest of these flops, I didn’t actually know much about it as I walked into the Lucille Lortel Theatre last week to see MCC Theater‘s new production of the cult musical (playing through April 8). I’ve never read the Stephen King book that inspired the show, nor I have I seen the movie. I knew only this: Unpopular girl with special powers goes to prom, gets dumped with pig’s blood, then goes berserk. And, tonight, she’ll be doing it to music.
Having no knowledge of what made the original production such a (alleged) disaster, I was able to watch without any preconceived notions, and I was largely pleased, even moved, by what I saw. The show certainly provokes giggles in places, but it’s mostly intentional humor targeting teen culture or Carrie’s bizarre, religiously conservative home life. If there was a strong whiff of camp in the original, it’s not easily detectable here. Admittedly Carrie’s Bible-quoting mother sometimes seems like a cliche from The Big Book of Crazy Religious Types, but Marin Mazzie (Ragtime) plays and sings the part so well and with such sincerity that you never doubt she loves Carrie, even though it’s a suffocating, frightening love.
One of the most fascinating things to me about watching Carrie was seeing a contemporary horror story adapted into a musical – a rarity indeed. The show’s bookwriter (Lawrence D. Cohen, who wrote the movie screenplay) and songwriters Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore (probably best known as pop songwriters who contributed to the movie Fame) actually reunited and worked with director Stafford Arima to re-work Carrie, and their efforts have paid off. Though it doesn’t produce Sweeney Todd levels of chills, the musical has an eerie tension that culminates with a very well-staged moment of final destruction when Carrie loses it. Special kudos to young Molly Ranson, who plays Carrie beautifully, showing us why she gets picked on, making us feel for her all the same, and also making us want to get the hell out of her way when she gets angry.