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Carrie off-Broadway

I was there in 1988, and I can prove it. The original Broadway version of “Carrie” the musical(which ran for 5 performances and 16 previews at a loss of near 8 million dollars)has provoked some wild posturing over the years and entered the realm of urban folklore. It is said that if the amount of people that say they attended it were actually there for one of those 21 shows—it would have been a runaway hit. Instead, it’s one of the most notorious bombs in New York stage history. Well, I have my Playbill from that notorious bomb and my ticket stub. So there. And it was as loud, and garish, and tin-eared as even those who didn’t see it claim that it was. But, even then, I sort of remember that it seemed savable. At the very least, the operatic quality of the face/offs between Carrie White(Linzi Hately)and her Mother(Betty Buckley)were extremely affecting. Of course, this was countered by the all out camp quality of the numbers performed by the actors portraying Carrie’s classmates. This was the stuff that sunk the 1988 version and entered it into infamy. The “Out for Blood” song alone is legendary for its awfulness. That being said, I recall the preview I attended receiving a raucous standing ovation. Now, truth be told, just about everything I see in New York receives a standing ovation—deserved or not(my policy is, if I’m forced to rise for something not up-to-snuff, I cease applauding). People spend a lot of dough on these tickets and they are going to like it NO MATTER WHAT, DAMMIT! Some of the worst things I’ve seen have received standing ovations. You can buy a ticket, but you can’t buy taste. But the enthusiasm for “Carrie ’88” was somewhat surreal. Audience members were practically standing on their chairs. This thing was getting to some people. And getting to them in a big way.               Fast forward 24 years. The “Carrie” revival has just opened off-Broadway on the evening of March the 1st. The over-the-top outlandishness from 1988 are gone. It’s now in a black box theater in the West Village designed for a more intimate audience. Special effects are minimal(little bit of colored lighting and some strings pulling chairs), and certain songs have been jettisoned. 1980’s Broadway heavyweight Betty Buckley has passed the baton to current Broadway heavyweight Marin Mazzie(so wonderful in the recent, “Next to Normal”). Carrie is being played by young Molly Ranson, one of the original cast members of the marvelous, Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County” from a few seasons back. The creators from a quarter of a century ago(Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford and Larry Cohen)are back to doctor the revisions for their monster. And Stafford Arima(off-Broadway’s “Altar Boyz”)directs a spirited cast. And lo and behold…they mostly pull it off! Oh, it ain’t perfect, and it probably never will be. In fact, you find yourself wishing that some of the balls-out pizzazz from the earlier incarnation had been retained. But no matter. This subdued production, with standout performances from Mazzie and Ranson may not belt a home run. But it’s, at least, a ground-rule double—and decidedly worth your while.          You must know the story by now. Either from the source novel from horror maestro Stephen King, or the 1976 hit film from Brian De Palma. Young Carrie White is the buttoned-down high school nerd that everyone else picks on, and she goes home to a religious freak mother who flies off into rages and locks Carrie in a closet to pray. After an unfortunate incident in the shower of the high school gym involving Carrie’s first period, the painfully shy young gal discovers she has somehow acquired the power of telekinesis(the ability to move objects with one’s mind). This proceeds to awaken a dormant spirit in the troubled girl, and her new-found confidence enables her to overcome her mother’s stronghold. The shower incident, where she was cruelly mocked, has pushed her understanding gym teacher to demand apologies from the girls involved. When one refuses, and is then barred from the prom, a bloody revenge plot against Carrie is put into place. And just when her telekinetic powers are reaching their full strength…               The scenes between mother and daughter are still the primary strength of the piece, and some of the operatic oomph of those songs has been retained. Carrie’s introductory number(“Carrie”)from early in Act 1 has been mercifully toned down—its shrill rendition from 1988 has never quite left my subconsious. Some of the high school stuff is still unwelcome, but the first act is exuberant and solid. And whereas everything put into place with production design in 1988 screamed HUGE(remember, this was the era of gigantic Lloyd Webber productions like “Cats” and “Starlight Express”, among others), the creative team is occasionally guilty of going too small this time around. It also smells a little bit “Rent” with a dash of “Spring Awakening” at times. But they’ve certainly staved off a repeat disaster in my eyes—owing a great deal of gratitude to Ms. Mazzie and Ms. Ranson for working hard to enhance the strength of that mother/daughter dynamic. No lights or strings are necessary for the magic that they bring to this current revival. Also, worth mentioning is a nice turn from Carmen Cusack as the gym teacher, Miss Gardener. You know, we’ve had some new form of “Carrie” every decade since the King book was first published in 1974. There’s the 1976 film version with Oscar-nominated perfs from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Then the 1988 Broadway musical. A mostly panned 1999 film sequel was monikered “The Rage: Carrie 2″. Then a 2002 revisionist television movie. And now this 2012 off-Broadway revival. There’s something to be said for the way this saga continues to speak to audiences. “Carrie 2012″ has already been extended beyond its original expected run, despite some critics now saying it’s too low-key(these guys can’t catch a break). And with a couple of tweaks here and there(the tragic finale seems a tad rushed), one can envision this “Carrie” sticking around even beyond that.          This revival of “Carrie” rates a 6.

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