The revival/revision of Carrie: The Musical, one of Broadway’s most notorious flops, isn’t completely inexplicable. The late ’80s disaster, reworked for Off-Broadway audiences in 2012 by original writers Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford and Lawrence D. Cohen, has a couple of good ideas and a couple almost-great songs — all of which are contained in the central relationship between bullied, telekinetic Carrie White and her religious fanatic mother, Margaret. Everything else? Grade-C afterschool special bullshit that takes itself deadly, dully seriously.
It’s no coincidence that the only worthwhile parts of Balagan Theatre’s staging, directed by new artistic director Louis Hobson, are the moments between Carrie and mom. Gore’s music ascends from cliché into thrillingly operatic heights and Pitchford’s dense, complex lyrical structure amplifies the clash of wills between the two in songs like “And Eve Was Weak” and “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance.” It certainly doesn’t hurt that mom Margaret is played by Tony-winner Alice Ripley, whose distinctive vocals (a few vowels get run through the ringer; get ready for a few lines sung to “Curry”) and relentless intensity are a great fit for the character. Keaton Whittaker is similarly impressive as Carrie, her diminutive stature belying her powerful voice, an appropriate analogue to the character’s secret nature.
Elsewhere, Carrie is pretty much bloodless, and that includes the underwhelming execution of the show’s signature moment. If you’re going to dump a bucket of stage blood on somebody, it ought to be more than a quarter-full and the blocking should probably ensure it actually coats her. The potential microphone havoc involved in such an effect is obvious, but a dribble of red down Whittaker’s back isn’t a great compromise. That half-assedness unfortunately extends to all the show’s effects; fishing line and timed falls could make for a decent on-stage telekinetic display, but not when they’re this sloppy.
Cohen’s revised book is a structural and tonal mess. We now open with the dreaded flashback framing device as traumatized student Sue Snell (Larissa Schmitz) explains the horrific prom events to a couple disembodied voices. Cohen inconsistently returns to this narrative crutch only when convenient. We witness poor Carrie bullied and mocked by a gang of unrepentant meanies, led by queen bitch Chris (Tessa Archer, whose snappy vocals are quite appealing) and her dumb-as-dishwater boyfriend Billy Nolan (Andrew Brewer). Miss Gardner (a mostly wasted Kendra Kassebaum) is sympathetic to Carrie’s outcast plight, and Sue begins to feel bad as well, enlisting her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (Kody Bringman), to take Carrie to prom as a gesture of goodwill.
The show establishes Carrie as a typical musical theater heroine, introducing her with the almost comically extended “I Am” song “Carrie” and giving voice to her desire for romance with “Unsuspecting Hearts.” Surely this is an ironic set-up that’ll be subverted in the second act, right? Um, not really, no. The show seems so determined to portray Carrie as a misunderstood dreamer that the story’s seemingly inherent horror is rendered completely limp. The whimpering finale “Epilogue,” in which the heretofore murdered ensemble lines the stage with candles and sings about “finally seeing” the real Carrie is hilariously misguided — the lone moment of unintentional camp in a show that could’ve used a much bigger dose.
Balagan’s production is also painfully lacking in the technical department, with some of the worst sound design I’ve ever witnessed in a professional production. Mic levels are way out of whack; the ensemble is almost entirely inaudible speaking or singing and for a distressing percentage of the show, many of the principals sounded like they were in a fishbowl if they weren’t drowned out by the orchestra entirely. At least there’s Tom Sturge’s nice set and lighting design, which establishes a spooky, dramatic mood that the show can’t live up to.
Carrie: The Musical is on stage at the Moore Theatre now through Oct. 26. Tickets are available for purchase online.Powered by Sidelines