Stafford Arima wants to make sure no one laughs at Carrie on prom night this year -- or when they do, it's with her rather that at her.
The veteran theater director, who helmed the Off-Broadway smash "Altar Boyz" and the premiere London production of "Ragtime," might just have tackled his most ambitious project yet -- a scaled-down, re-conceived and altogether overhauled incarnation of "Carrie," the panned 1988 musical about a misfit teen who wreaks havoc on her high school class using supernatural powers after being the butt of one brutal prank too many.
Arima's new Off-Broadway version, which opened March 1 at New York's Lucille Lortel Theatre, shifts Stephen King's 1974 classic to the post-Columbine present day, when the central themes of teen bullying, high school torment and even adolescent murder are perhaps even more timely. Though fans of King's book or the 1976 Brian DePalma film starring Sissy Spacek will be relieved to find the familiar story left virtually intact, the show's creative team (Arima, composer Michael Gore, lyricist Dean Pitchford and book writer Lawrence D. Cohen) have strived to give "Carrie" a fresh, modern shine.
For inspiration, Arima says he thought about his own personal experiences within the gay community. "In reading King's novel for the first time, I realized that Carrie's telekinetic powers are a metaphor for being different," Arima says. "That being different could mean someone who's an ethnic minority or someone who's gay, or someone who wears glasses. We all know what it's like to be different, whether it's in high school or in life. The universality of that feeling, I think, is what has attracted people to this story in all of its various incarnations."
Though still imperfect in its specifics, the result is a camp-free show that's nonetheless finely acted, well sung and inventively staged. Molly Ransom is particularly stirring in the title role, while Marin Mazzie ("Next to Normal") gives Carrie's renegade Christian mother Margaret a more humanized, yet still off-her-rocker, touch. A talented ensemble can't hide the fact that many of the secondary characters are disposable (perhaps rightfully so, given the show's climax). But gay fans will nonetheless appreciate the scene-stealing Corey Boardman as a possibly questioning teen with a less-than-subtle crush on Derek Klena's Tommy Ross, the button-handsome jock who eventually serves as Carrie's ill-fated prom date.
Check out photos from "Carrie," then scroll down to keep reading:
"It's always been important to me when you create an ensemble of characters -- in this case, the students -- that we create a community," Arima notes. "There wasn't any specific intent to create a confused young man. It wasn't written this way, but we thought maybe the character of George has a crush on Tommy, and that it's something he could never say. Corey just thought that was an interesting idea."
Of course, both cast and crew are aware that "Carrie" boasts a theatrical legacy so notorious, it inspired "Not Since Carrie," Ken Mandelbaum's 1992 book about Broadway musical failures. Scorched by critics and audiences, the original 1988 production shuttered after just five performances; however, that premature closing also sparked a rabid cult following eager to snap up the few, low-quality bootleg recordings, photos and videos of the show which exist.
As such, this re-shaping of "Carrie" from its gothic horror origins into a more subdued, cautionary anti-bullying tale has been met with mixed reviews from theatergoers, some of whom are hoping to see the more campy elements of both the original production and the story itself emphasized. Similarly, those anticipating a fiery holocaust during show's final sequence will be surprised by its blood-free staging, which is driven mostly by trick lighting. Still, "it's touching the people who come to see it," says Christy Altomare, who plays good girl Sue. "No one wants to see anyone bullied, no one wants to see anyone mistreated. Multiple teenagers have come up to me after the show and tell me they can relate to this story." As for whether or not this version induces the laughs that the original production received, Altomare notes, "There is genuine laughter in the house, but it comes out of the situation."
With regard to the story's innate gay appeal, Arima observes, "I've always found it interesting in the gay community that we come from an environment of being pointed out, ridiculed and laughed at, but then even within our own community we can be made fun of because we're not wearing the proper clothing or we don't have the right body type. As human beings, no matter where we come from, we can still feel like outsiders even within our own community."
Arima also hopes his new version of "Carrie" will accurately reflect theatergoers' current tastes in both its style and execution. As such, the Off-Broadway success of "Silence! The Musical" (based on 1991's "Silence of the Lambs") means audiences just might just be more willing to embrace a musicalized horror story than they were in 1988.
"Musicals are an interesting beast because at their core, there's something unrealistic about them," he says. "One doesn't necessarily start to sing when sitting down to dinner with your mother. But sometimes the most potent and most interesting stories are the ones that people don't expect to see in a musical format. 'Carrie' has one of those interesting narratives."
What lies next for the show is anyone's guess, but Arima says they're thrilled at the planned run's four-week extension through April 22. "People are wanting to hear it, see it, experience it and perhaps be touched by it," Arima notes, before concluding with a metaphor that Carrie's mother herself might be proud of. "There are so many possibilities for a piece like this on any level, but whatever happens in its future is in the hands of the theater angels at this point."
MCC Theater's production of "Carrie" plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York City through April 22. For more information, click here.