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Minimalism usually makes for better horror, at least on the stage: An audience’s imagination can conjure creepier images than the most eloquent direction and the most convincing special effects. Not so with the musical version of Stephen King’s blood-on-the-dance-floor thriller Carrie, a stripped-down and pallid version of which is playing in the fourth-floor black-box space at Studio Theatre.
Granted, Carrie: The Musical has always been as ungainly a creature as its awkward antiheroine—you know, the high-school misfit who takes the bullying meekly until a public prom-night humiliation evokes wholesale telekinetic carnage. The Broadway original was so famously despised that the definitive compendium of massive musical-theater flops is actually titled Not Since ‘Carrie’.
The music is the main issue: Michael Gore’s insipid ballads and tame rock-lite ensemble numbers coat the shivery bones of King’s story (adapted here, as for the Brian de Palma film, by Lawrence D. Cohen) in a lumpy layer of vanilla. And Dean Pitchford’s lyrics give new meaning to…what’s the word? Oh, right, “forgettable.” Only the dire arias for Carrie’s wild-eyed fundamentalist mother (a gratifyingly haunted Barbara Walsh) have any bite; you can hear, in their angles and moans, why the original production’s Betty Buckley inspired a cult.
Emily Zickler’s Carrie proves sympathetic enough, though she’s perhaps a bit stronger-spined than might be ideal for such a punching-bag character. And Maria Rizzo, as mean-girl-gone-soft Sue Snell, manages to suggest that not all high-school teenagers are soulless and horrible, which is something.
Keith Alan Baker and Jacob Janssen steer the proceedings competently but without much verve, and Darius Smith’s teeny-tiny band does its best not to sound as thin as it is. Only Michael J. Bobbitt’s choreography brings any real energy to the mix, and the cast seems to enjoy its sass and inventiveness. When they’re bouncing through his combinations, this otherwise moribund Carrie actually threatens to come to life.