How do you solve a problem like “Carrie”?
Stephen King’s breakout 1974 horror novel has riveted and grossed out millions of readers. Brian De Palma’s sly, spellbinding 1976 film version of King’s tale of adolescent cruelty and nuclear-option revenge is a horror-movie classic.
But “Carrie, the musical”? It was a debacle, a poster child for expensive flops in its 1988 debut on Broadway. The revised version of that tuner, which Balagan Theatre is presenting at the Moore Theatre, isn’t a catastrophe. But it is a sappier, irony-free treatment of “Carrie,” and something of a bloody mess.
Actually, there’s precious little here of the pig’s blood that so famously gets dumped on Carrie White by her taunting classmates — thereby ruining the poor kid’s prom, and unleashing her destructive powers.
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The paucity of scarlet ooze is one issue. More significant last Saturday night were the persistent sound problems in the Balagan staging, otherwise directed efficiently by Louis Hobson.
Erratic amplification often sabotaged an accomplished cast of strong singers (including Tony winner Alice Ripley) by obscuring lyrics in the score by composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford, and some dialogue in Lawrence D. Cohen’s book.
When the voices do ring out clearly above the loud pit band, “Carrie, the musical” has other issues.
Though Cohen’s script is based on the screenplay he penned for De Palma’s movie, much has changed — and mostly not for the better.
King’s shrewd satire of vacuous American teen culture and an ineffectual education system is a tightwire act between campy comic splatter-fest and “Lord of the Flies” parable. It’s been flattened out and sugared up in the musical, suggesting a cross between a “Glee” episode and an instructive, anti-bullying Hallmark channel movie.
Against Tom Sturge’s stark backdrop of a burned-out high-school facade, the focus on belittled outcast Carrie (stirringly played by local singer-actress Keaton Whittaker) has been reduced to accommodate the enlarged character of classmate Sue Snell (Larissa Schmitz).
Sue’s a real goody-goody here. She not only compassionately urges boyfriend Tommy (appealing Kody Bringman) to invite Carrie to the prom. She also gets a mushy love duet with Tommy, and sings repeatedly about how once you’ve “seen” an underdog’s predicament, it can’t be “unseen.”
Opposite an entirely virtuous Sue (whose motives were less clear in the movie) comes an extra-harder, nasty ringleader of the taunters, Chris (Tessa Archer). Chris sneers and swaggers nonstop, while plotting gruesome payback on Carrie after being punished by teacher Miss Gardner (a vibrant, underutilized Kendra Kassebaum) for torturing the poor kid in the gym shower.
In contrast, Carrie’s other relentless tormentor, her religious zealot mother, Margaret, is more pathetic than terrifying here. Dragging around in a slip and open robe, Ripley’s haggard Margaret ably earns our sympathy as a single mother trying to be loving in her own twisted way. And her distinctively husky, expressive voice blends beautifully with Whittaker’s, in the duets that are a highlight in an otherwise unremarkable score.
But the big mother-daughter showdown that the audience awaits, as well as that iconic prom stunt, are pretty anticlimactic. The tension doesn’t build enough to change gears from earnestness to terror. And Carrie’s supernatural powers are underwhelming — despite Sturge’s vivid lighting effects.
With a hyped new movie reviving interest in the novel and original film, the “Carrie” brand is strong. The Saturday audience cheered Balagan’s able cast, and tickets to the Moore outing may sell well.
But those looking for a “Carrie” with gory thrills won’t find it here. Nor will they find many traces of a King trademark: his devilishly dark and distinctive wit.