Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson in Carrie
(© Joan Marcus)
Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson in Carrie
(© Joan Marcus)
After earning an unparalleled level of infamy when it premiered on Broadway in 1988, the musical Carrie has returned to the stage in a revised version at the Lucille Lortel Theatre Off-Broadway, courtesy of MCC Theater. And while the show remains far from perfect, this new incarnation makes a case for it being a viable stage commodity. That's a feat that's almost as impressive as the telekinetic powers possessed by the title character.

As with the Stephen King horror novel on which it's based (and the classic movie it inspired), the musical charts the cruelty-filled world that teenager Carrie White (Molly Ranson) must endure in her tiny hometown in Maine. At school, she's taunted by her peers, who are led by the vapid, entitled Chris (Jeanna de Waal); while at home, she must contend with her tyrannically evangelical mother Margaret (Marin Mazzie).

But there are glimmers of hope in Carrie's existence, notably gym teacher Lynn Gallagher (made a Southern-fried spitfire by Carmen Cusack), who acts as a kind of protector, especially after one particularly mean-spirited outburst that Carrie endures from the other girls at the school.

Meanwhile, popular girl Sue (played sweetly by Christy Atlomare) finally takes pity on her schoolmate, going so far as to gently insist that her boyfriend, sensitive jock Tommy (an endearing Derek Klena) take Carrie to the prom. As anyone familiar with the story knows, the results of this plan prove disastrous.

This new production, directed with swift precision by Stafford Arima, benefits remarkably from the framing device by book writer Lawrence D. Cohen, with the story now told as a flashback as Sue is interrogated by unseen police about the events at the prom. (Conversely, there's now a tentativeness about the show's timeframe; a smattering of cell phone and Facebook references are not enough to make the show feel as if it's taking place in the present and not the 1970s.)

Further, the production unfolds within the creepy confines of a badly charred gymnasium (scenic design by David Zinn). There's something genuinely unsettling about the space, particularly before the show begins in earnest and the ghostly sounds of a school in happier times are heard (excellent sound design by Jonathan Deans).

In addition, the production's leading ladies Ranson and Mazzie deliver smolderingly intense performances that rivet theatergoers. And each has the ability to belt composer Michael Gore and lyricist Dean Pitchford's songs -- a mixture of light 80s pop sounds, soaring, almost operatic melodies, and power ballads -- with both power and decidedly touching emotion, with Mazzie using her lower register to particularly stunning effect.

The show has some problems: Ranson, while capturing Carrie's innocence and sunniness that's yearning to break free, imbues the character with a kind of self-awareness that makes Carrie's unwillingness to fight back against the girls at school unconvincing. And, during the show's explosive conclusion (made possible by Sven Ortel's projection design), it almost seems as if Carrie is willfully taking her revenge on those who have tormented her, rather than experiencing a kind of psychic meltdown.

Moreover, while Gore and Pitchford have trimmed their original score of its less successful material and added a couple of great new songs -- notably a gentle wisp of a ballad for Tommy and a terrifically reconceived number for Carrie as she preps for the prom -- they've also added several numbers that stall the action, notably the generic-sounding ensemble number "The World According to Chris."

In the end, though, the show, like its heroine, seems to be straining to break free of a chrysalis of its troubled history. And chances are, with more time and work, a truly beautiful Carrie might emerge.