John P. McCarthy
What would possess a theater company to stage ‘Carrie: The Musical’? It’s a fair question, not least because the 1988 Broadway production ranks among the most notorious flops in the history of the Great White Way, closing after just five post-preview performances. Having bombed in a previous incarnation shouldn’t automatically disqualify a show, but it ought to raise a red flag. Especially to a new company—Theatre Now New York—searching for something to mount as its first full-scale production.
Perhaps knowing that ‘Carrie’ would open the night before Halloween, and in the appropriately suburban municipality of Irvington in Westchester, drove the decision. Or maybe TNNY was persuaded by the show’s topicality. Sadly, bullying, religious fanaticism, and supernatural-tinged, peer-on-peer violence are all-too-relevant themes. Maybe the near simultaneous Broadway opening of ‘Misery,’ adapted from another Stephen King novel, influenced their choice. Lastly, TNNY might have been motivated by the fact comedy-horror hybrids are in vogue.
Whatever their reasons for selecting it, ‘Carrie: The Musical’ is misbegotten in a number of crucial ways. Above all, it’s not a successful mix of comedy and horror. Michael Gore’s score has its mellifluous passages and the story—which King’s readers back in 1974 probably found shocking—is still sufficiently disturbing. Yet the song lyrics by Dean Pitchford and Lawrence Cohen’s book aren’t up to the task. They lack resonance and heft.
The tone is all over the place and the show is never sufficiently funny, frightening, or campy. It’s no wonder director Thomas Morrissey, also the artistic director of TNNY, isn’t able to mold ‘Carrie’ into a cohesive whole. Given the material’s inherent limitations and the challenges of a charming yet inflexible performance space, Irvington Town Hall Theater, he does pretty well however. It’s a spirited effort for sure. The dominant spirit just happens to be lighter than expected. In other words, the production tries to be more of a lark than is warranted.
Scenes between mousy Carrie White (Mary Malaney) and her domineering, literally bible-belting mother Margaret White (Alicia Irving) must be played without a hint of irony. And they are, which is why they’re the most impressive parts of the show. Malaney and Irving plumb their characters’ pain with operatic zeal. Armed with fine, compatible voices, their duets are lovely and haunting. But the contrast between their interactions and the tongue-in-cheek tenor of most of the other segments is jarring.
‘Carrie’’s plot is simple, even for a musical. TNNY sets it in the present day at Irvington High School where social media is essential to the kids’ lives. As theatergoers may recall from Brian De Palma’s famous movie, or from subsequent screen remakes, Carrie is mercilessly teased and shunned by her classmates. Following a particularly vicious incident in the school locker room, pretty and popular Sue Snell (Meg McWhorter) is overcome with guilt and tries to atone for her behavior by setting Carrie up with her BMOC boyfriend Tommy Ross (Pat Moran).
Sue persuades Tommy to take Carrie to the prom in her stead. Carrie’s attendance displeases mean girl Chris (Madeline Fansler), who schemes to humiliate our better-off-home-schooled Cinderella but who is unaware of her telekinetic powers and the bloody comeuppance she’s capable of meting out.
The ensemble is comprised of fresh-faced twenty-somethings who do a fine job of making us believe they’re adolescents and whose singing and dancing abilities are quite formidable. Morrissey can be forgiven for having them overplay the “Happy Days” jocularity, since Carrie’s plight has the potential to be devastating.
Still, it’s too bad no one takes any risks with their characterizations. The two authority figures, gym teacher Ms. Gardner (Stefanie Londino) and school administrator Mr. Stephens (Scott Mosenthal) are earnestly non-descript. Casting Mosenthal, an amateur thespian and former principal of Irvington High School, lends the production authenticity, just not in a good way.
Likewise, Irvington Town Hall Theater evokes a high school auditorium where an actual prom might be held, but this synchronicity ends up working against the show. The stage feels cramped and the acoustics, although (or because) enhanced by microphones, aren’t great. Too many lyrics and lines can’t be made out.
The four-person rock band sounds good. They play from the back of the stage behind strips of semi-translucent plastic that hang down from the ceiling and serve as scrim. This backdrop is employed to eerie effect when footage of Sue being interviewed by police after the prom is projected onto it.
When depicting the violence that springs from Carrie’s pent-up rage, the show’s designers rely on percussive sound effects and strobe lights. When she levitates several objects, strings or wires are visible. Since no effort is made to hide these aids, it suggests Morrissey and company are promulgating a farcical interpretation.
During the climactic sequence, the shower of pig’s blood is not attempted, but a tuxedoed teen dummy is propelled from the wings and out over the audience on a pulley. This generates laughs and erases any doubt as to whether TNNY was opting for hokey frivolity over anything genuinely scary. While it’s disappointing for the audience, actually Ms. Malaney and Ms. Irving are the ones left hanging. They give performances worthy of classical tragedy and deserve better than sophomoric pranks.
‘Carrie: The Musical’ by Theatre Now New York runs at Irvington Town Hall Theatre through November 7, 2015