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Carrie, Back from the Dead Again

10/07/2013 01:01 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

"Who wants to see a musical about bullying in high school," I asked my theatergoing companion.

"Everybody," he replied, and he was right.

Carrie, presented by Ray of Light, a newish troupe in San Francisco, opened to a packed house last week. Based on the Stephen King novel, the show has the audience rooting for revenge. The horror it presents is not the death of people who impliedly deserve it, but the banality of pursuing popularity as a teenager.

The title character is an outcast picked on by the mean girls whose lives likely have not yet peaked thanks to the privileged backgrounds which they take for granted. Abused by a mother whose religious faith centers on repressing sexuality, Carrie realizes she in fact is an anomaly: She has telekinesis, the ability to use her thoughts to move physical objects.

The tragedy of her life is that she wants to join the party, not fight her peers much less kill them. She is overjoyed at the prospect of the resident poet-jock asking her out. It isn't any date either. He offers to take her to the prom.

As played here by an actual high school student (Christina Ann Oeschger) cast among professionals, Carrie is not especially awkward. Her subordinate status is shown only by her clothing. She has to sew her own dress for her big night.

Carrie has entered popular culture. The musical assumes the viewers more or less know the plot. Someone unfamiliar with the material might not understand the spectacle that she is witnessing, despite the framing device of a survivor of the massacre responding to unseen interrogators. If you don't know, here is a spoiler: Carrie makes the building burn down; just about everyone perishes.

The scenes that are known well enough to be parodied are brought to live theater with restrained direction. Carrie has her first period, but ignorant of menstruation she believes she is bleeding to death. The incident is presented sans prurient detail -- she emerges from the locker room shower that is offstage, wrapped in a towel that shows what has happened only by its stain. When she is chosen as the prom queen as the set up to a terrible prank, the bucket of pigs' blood that is dumped on her head is a trickle of embarrassment instead of a deluge of humiliation. The punitive attitude toward her promiscuous peers, a theme in virtually all scary movies from the 1970s, likewise has been toned down.

Carrie the musical is as much a curiosity as its subject. Twenty-five years ago, it turned into one of the most famous flops ever to have opened on Broadway. Its five performances cost between $7 and $8 million depending on which source you believe.

A year ago, the reworked revival ran briefly enough to be considered an almost bomb albeit off-Broadway. The creative team reportedly felt vindicated.

Then there is the cinematic competition. The 1976 Brian DePalma blockbuster starred Sissy Spacek, with Piper Laurie, Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, John Travolta, and WIlliam Katt. A remake is forthcoming, featuring Chloe Grace Moretz.

This West Coast version of Carrie has been updated discreetly: the kids carry cell phones. A disco ball glitters above the crowd to recall the glamour of high school gyms turned into dance halls.

One of the "in crowd" is Asian American; another is a closeted gay. The extent of progress is that they too participate in tormenting someone less liked. There in the Mission District where the venue is located, no doubt more than a few of the hip youngsters hanging out have experienced the common cruelties of adolescence.

Carrie can be recommended with enthusiasm. The tunes are earnest rather than memorable. The voices are strong, in particular Heather Orth as mother Margaret White, probably not needing the amplification that is provided. The staging is clever, with projections on a set of rough wooden planks.

The anti-bullying message has gained importance in this internet era. Any of us is vulnerable.

Instead of crossing over to campy as the original production was said to be (with its oinking and cries of "Kill the Pig!"), this staging favors the didactic. Ironically, it is suited to become a staple for high school drama departments to put on. The moral should not be reduced to, "Best not mess with people possessed of supernatural powers."

I suppose given the range of human life depicted in contemporary musical theater such as in the hit Spring Awakening, most fans of the genre will not be shocked by Carrie. It suffers, however, because as my friend -- who raved as we were exiting the theater -- said, "It's just that the movie was so damned good."