Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Carried Away

Well, I've been off the grid for several days and haven't had much time to watch too many films to evaluate here for you...largely because I was in New York City watching some pretty amazing live theater.  Films are a wonderful expression of storytelling in sight and sound, and yet still there is something about the up-close and personal element of live theater that we still can't quite get away from.  I'm not going to debate which form is better here today...I'll leave that to people who find the debate important enough to harbor a bias...rather I want to discuss one of the shows that I saw while I was in the Big Apple.  It is a show that I have always been curious about and facinated by due to it's outrageous idea and tremendous failure in it's original form.  I doubt that many people aren't familiar with the first novel that Stephen King published under his real name, and even fewer are probably unfamiliar with Brian De Palma's powerhouse film based on the property.  It is a seemingly simple tale of high school alienation and bullying that is punched up by ultra-religious overtones and then framed around the fact that something horrible is about to happen because of a prank gone wrong.  It was a powerful little book and film and so Broadway thought it would also make a powerhouse musical.  They did indeed make history, but not the kind they wanted.  Carrie: The Musical opened on Broadway in 1988 and ran for a grand total of five performances before it closed in the face of bad reviews and and infamous reputation.  Now, MCC Theater in the West Village have revived and reworked the material into an all-new show that they hope will wash away the original's tarnished reputation and give "Carrie" a better chance at success.  I was there at the Febuary 17th performance, the culmination of three weeks of previews (there's still a week to go until the show opens 'officially') and I can honestly say that this Carrie is superior to the original production in every way...though opinions will differ due to the subject matter.

The set for the new production is very simple and is meant to evoke an image of a burned-out gymnasium.  The stage is open with no curtains and there are three doors...one on each side and a huge set of metal fire doors that exit to the rear.  Immediately you feel a sense of menace and danger in this environment that is confined to the stage and sits only inches from where you sit in safe reality.  Suddenly, spooky sound effects begin to rise to a crecendo and the stage lights dim...and Carrie is off to a rolling start.  The play begins with, and then is framed by, the confession of Sue Snell (Christy Altomare) while she is questioned by unseen voices who we assume to be police or FBI.  She repeats words from King's book about how they were kids, and suddenly the stage is alive with high school students rushing to and fro for the number "In", which is about how it's dangerous to be different.  The voices of the cast blend beautifully and as they move, you feel as though you are really seeing something special.  Soon, Carrie White (Molly Ranson) appears and now the play feels like it is hitting familiar territory.  From that point on we are treated to a book that follows the book and film fairly religiously and music that effectively evokes the spirit of the original text while also providing the satire found in the film.  Ranson acts with convincing awkwarness and sincerity in her early scenes and shows growth and change throughout.  When she first began her scenes as Carrie, I thought "Wow, that actress is really awkward."  It never occured to me that she was actually acting (usually you can tell)...however, when she sings the end of the Act I finale "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance", she gives her mother a smile that expressed both defiance and the monster stirring beneath the surface.  Suddenly, I believed this awkward girl could kill someone. 
Marin Mazzie also shines as Margaret White, the religion-obsessed mother of Carrie who acts as her home torturer.  Mazzie plays Margaret with a sincerity and intensity that clearly reads as love...even when she is being cruel.  I would compare the portrayal to Kathy Bates' Annie Wilkes...in fact, the whole time I was watching her I felt I could hear Bates saying "Hush now, trust me...it's for the best."  Margaret doesn't hurt Carrie because she wants power over her...she does it because she loves her and she feels she has no other choice.  This comes across beautifully in each of her numbers, including the thrilling "And Eve Was Weak", the soft and touching "Evening Prayers", and the dangerous and powerful "I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance."  I thought, after that, that there would be no way for her to top her performance up to that point...and yet she does it in spades when Carrie leaves for the prom and she sings "When There's No One".  In this song she decides that she must kill Carrie in order to save her from her 'witch-like' powers, but she also realizes that that act will leave her alone and that she might as well be dead herself.  Fully aware that Margaret was a monster, I found myself tearing up for her as Mazzie took the stage and delivered probably the most moving number of the show.

Much has been said since these preview performances began about the Prom sequence and how it feels rushed and incomplete (more has been said about the lack of 'blood' in the scene, which people are leaping on and attacking without having seen the show).  I don't know if it has changed since I saw it, but I felt that the scene lasted the perfect length of time.  It begins as a party, the best night of the year, and the staging captures the magic and romance of prom night in the reprise of a new song, "A Night We'll Never Forget", and reprises of "Unsuspecting Hearts" (which Carrie shares with her kindly gym teacher), and "Dreamer in Disguise" (another new song which shares a poem that Tommy Ross wrote and which Carrie liked).  Reactions to Carrie's entrance are handled very well, with most thinking she looks silly and at least one girl sincerely wishing her well.  Then, the big moment occurs.  Earlier in the show a bucket of blood was carried on stage by Chris Hargensen (Carmen Cusack) and Billy Nolan (Ben Thompson) and then lifted (by means of a shadow projection effect) into the rafters.  That same shadow bucket is projected on stage and then tipped, allowing a projected glop of blood to fall down over Carrie.  The projected blood, helped by red lights, covers Carrie and she reacts appropriately...acting as though there is real blood all over her.  The teens then start to taunt her (and since they are also covered in the 'blood', it is assumed that this teasing is all in Carrie's now-broken mind) until Carrie gets mad.  Suddenly the red light focuses in only on Carrie and she looks up, dowsing them in harsh light.  Fear turns to panic as projected flames begin to creep up the back wall and the teens all dash for the exits only to find them blocked.  Then, in tightly choreographed agony, the victims begin to writhe in Carrie's power and find themselves thrown against the back wall and then up it.  As Carrie leaves through the double doors, they hang there lifeless and dead-eyed as the projected flames dance across them.  When Carrie exits, the doors slam shut with a deafaning clang and there is a pause...and then a projected explosion (with sound) rocks the theater as the bodies react in slow motion to it...looking as though they have been tossed from the building.  The whole destruction sequence does indeed happen quickly, but it wisely doesn't linger and so the impact of the moment resonates with you long after the show has ended.  You constantly wonder if you really saw what you thought you saw...and that is reason alone to return to see it again.

Not all is roses though in this new production.  While the new songs are all welcome (aside from the surprisingly dull "Why Not Me?") several of the older songs have been tweaked lyricly...in many cases to their detrement.  There were many moments where a lyric replaced one that I was used to and I cringed...not because my memory was shattered, but because the new lyric was really bad.  Some songs had lyrics that sounded as though I had written them...and that is REALLY bad.  In many of these instances the new lyric isn't even necessary to reflect current changes in the production and only seems to have been changed for the sake of change.  I hope that the creators change some of them back, if not all, so as to give this production a better chance at bat.  All of the new songs are excellent and replace some real turds from the original score and favorites of mine include: "Dreamer in Disguise", "You Shine", and "The World According to Chris".  I mentioned before that "Why Not Me?" was dull and I was not exaggerating, but it replaces the tonally inappropriate "I'm Not Alone" and thus makes for a better moment...but that hole isn't filled yet...there's another song waiting to be created here.  In terms of casting, there are three weak links (in my humble opinion) that don't match the game put on by the other performers.  Wayne Alan Wilcox is not bad in his role as Mr. Stephens, the English Teacher, but he looks far too young to be taken seriously in the role and it should have gone to someone who looked as world-savvy as Carmen Cusack who plays gym-teacher, Mrs. Gardner.  On the more serious side are Jeanna De Waal and Ben Thompson as Chris and Billy, the villains.  Both of them act convincingly enough in their roles, but their singing voices are very weak compared to their castmates...and in such important roles you really need people who are going to hit every aspect of the performance perfectly.  Other negatives include a scattering of awkward moments and transitions in the material early on in the show (such as the transition between high school and home in the beginning and the reaction to Carrie's period in the gym locker room).  These are all moments that merely require an effective pause or additional still moments in between so that we don't lose them in all the action...thankfully these moments disappear by mid Act I and never reappear.

You can tell that Carrie is an entertaining show when you watch it with an audience.  People were cheering, laughing, and gasping in all of the appropriate moments and it made for a very exciting night at the theater.  Granted, not everyone will experience Carrie from the same point of view.  For every person who was terrified of Carrie and her Prom rampage there was another one giggling with delight at the camp they percieved in the moment.  There were even those who simply thought the whole thing was cheesy and irredemable (which is a criticism one can lob at any musical).  Perhaps there is no way around that in a show like this, that deals with crazy mothers, period blood, dead pigs, and telekinesis.  There's no doubt about it though, Carrie offers solid entertainment no matter how you percieve it and I believe it is "the" Off-Broadway show to catch this season.  I hope all of  you who can see it, go...and hopefully you will be "Carried" away, like I was.

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