03/02/2012 07:53 am ET Updated May 02, 2012

First Nighter: Musical Carrie Flickers But Doesn't Flame

For an authoritative comparison between the 1988 Broadway production of the classic flop Carrie and the smaller-scaled MCC revival (revisal?) at the Lucille Lortel, this isn't the place to look. Sorry to report I'd heard such dire reaction to the previews back in that day, I carefully steered clear of the impending disaster. Therefore, I regret having missed, in particular, the last of the four -- count 'em, four -- official performances. The May 15 night is now considered a legendary closing that those lucky enough to have in and on their seats still wax nostalgic over and often use to one-up the less fortunate.

The best I can do is suggest that the revamped version -- wherein the raucous Chamberlain, Maine students now wield cellphones -- may have been updated and improved by original creators Lawrence D. Cohen (libretto), composer (Michael Gore) and lyricist (Dean Pitchford) but not to the extent where the tweaks are likely to lift the singing-dancing scarifier much above the cult status it's already achieved. The real difference between today's Carrie and yesterday's may be that the refurbished enterprise with some songs dropped and some added has a chance of maintaining a cult-based run. That's if the off-B'way item featuring a cast of 14 is sufficiently able to crunch the daunting numbers in its favor.

Adapted from Stephen King's 1974 novel of the same name (and subsequent 1976 Brian De Palma film), the literally bloody plot focuses on Carrie White (Molly Ranson), a mousy, evangelical-mother-dominated girl bullied by her peers in a way familiar from contemporary headlines about the cause behind too many teen suicides. The stakes are raised on Carrie's daily school-grounds torment when, only weeks before the senior prom, she experiences her first period, has no clue to what's happening and is mocked for her sexual backwardness by classmates -- among whom are eventually sympathetic Sue Snell (Christy Altomare) and spoiled rich kid Chris Hargensen (Jeanna de Waal). There's no sympathy for Carrie at home, either, where she's immediately demonized by her Satan-fearing mom Margaret (Marin Mazzie), a lank-haired horror in shabby house-dress.

Despite intervention by compassionate gym coach Lynn Gardner (Carmen Cusack) and contrite Sue Snell's insistence that boyfriend Tommy Ross (Derek Klena) invite the put-upon Carrie to the big dance, the socially inept girl remains despised by scheming Chris and thick-headed boyfriend Billy Nolan (Ben Thompson). Banned from the anticipated outing, the two of them take clandestine revenge there, completely unaware that their makeover-transformed target has acquired telekinetic abilities that can and will lead to disaster.

So the story -- which has the same undercurrent of adolescent hormonal jolts going for it as does the much better Spring Awakening -- is melodrama hiked practically to Goth levels. Unfortunately, the current incarnation runs into two problems. One seems a carry-over (Carrie-over?) from its earlier materialization. It's the Gore-Pitchford score, which is decidedly chord-ominous (hardly minimized by Doug Besterman's orchestrations or Mary-Mitchell Campbell's musical direction) but lacks any kind of inspiration.

Even as the hyperkinetic cast members exert their best efforts to raise its level -- with Ransom and Mazzie leading the rest while warbling as if delivering the intricacies of Vincenzo Bellini's Norma -- they're still blasting lyrics that rhyme "salvation" with "damnation" and include sentiments the likes of "I think you hide so much you feel inside."

When Tommy and Sue sneak a romantic pre-prom moment, the song they need for melting spectators' hearts is something more persuasive than the one they get, "You Shine." Mazzie manages to make patrons gasp appreciatively with her second-act solo, "When There's No One," but it's her acumen and not the threnody's that's on display.

Not to forget that under Stafford Arima's high-wattage direction and with Kevin Adams's gaudy lighting and Jonathan Deans's screech-decibel sound at work, Altomare, Klena, de Waal and compatriots act, sing and dance those rebellious teens (Matt Williams is the choreographer) with all stops out.

The second, perhaps even more deflating, problem occurs at the fatal prom when Carrie --humiliated one too many times and just when she's finding herself a pretty girl no longer under her crazed mother's rule -- unleashes those new-found incendiary powers. Those who compulsively page-turned through the novel and let their wildest imaginings flourish and/or saw the movie where certain techniques not available for the stage were brought into play will likely find Matthew Holtzclaw's special effects on David Zinn's corrosively dark stage disappointing and maybe even confusing.

Movie-goers haunted by the horror flick's final image -- which won't be recounted here but is even more frightening than the Carrie-lets-go-with-a-vengeance sequence -- will likely be waiting for it and dismayed when they don't get it. As they leave the theater, what they'll realized they've had to settle for is a not terrible but no more than mediocre version of Stephen King's prom-night nightmare inducer.