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‘Carrie: The Musical’ is creepy and weird and – believe it or not – pretty good

By Ted Hadley

NEWS CONTRIBUTING REVIEWER

There is a restaurant in Manhattan, Joe Allen’s, that is a destination for theater buffs, show biz moguls and actors. (Some trivia: Al Pacino likes the watercress and endive salad.)

An infamous poster gallery, a strange ode to Broadway musical failures – “flopsicals,” a wag once called them – hangs on the walls. These are shows that tanked quickly, sometimes after one performance – “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” with Mary Tyler Moore, for example – with millions of money lost and reputations tarnished.

Seek and you shall find a poster touting “Carrie, The Musical,” an ill-fated 1988 adaptation of an early Stephen King contemporary horror novel, “Carrie,” a script that the author once trashed, only to be rescued by his wife and sent, scuffed, to a publisher. The musical version, with music and lyrics by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, and book by Lawrence Cohen, lasted for three performances and theater critic Frank Rich, writing for The New York Times, compared it to the Hindenburg disaster.

But, wait. In 2012, Off- Broadway producers and the same writing and composing team, all with seemingly short memories, resuscitated the musical turkey with some success and it has enjoyed a world-wide comeback. Go figure.

And now, here it is at Matthew La Chiusa’s risk-taking, peripatetic once more American Repertory Theater – borrowing space at Medaille College – with estimable director Christopher Standart charged with making carnage, vengeance and blood-letting fun again. And, do you know what? He does. “Flopsical” no more.

You must remember Carrie. She is author King’s high school senior, pretty but nerdy, mocked and bullied by her classmates and her every day is hellish. The obnoxious girls, particularly, chant “Life doesn’t begin until you fit in.“ One day in gym class, Carrie has her period and doesn’t know what happened. The taunts multiply. Please. Graduation.

Home is not much better. Carrie’s mother, Margaret, is a religious fanatic and explains in song the gym debacle: “Eve Was Weak.” When Carrie gets invited to that teenage angst-filled rite of passage, The Senior Prom – a nice gesture by a new friend that goes terribly, cruelly wrong – she wreaks havoc with newfound telekinetic powers. Not as much blood in this “Carrie” revival. But, heed the Biblical warning, “by fire next time.”

A cast of 14, led by a marvelously talented newcomer, singer/actress/dancer Marina Laurendi – a pathetic duckling, a vindictive swan, as Carrie – and anchored by veteran area actors Mary Gjurich, sweetly sensible Jenny McCabe, Emily Yancey, Heather Reed, Timothy Goehrig and Michael Starzynski, plus an involved ensemble – bring a 20-tune, part soft rock, part operatic score to fine life. These are listenable, if repetitive, even pretty songs that belie the impending doom of the story. Voices are universally excellent. The spookily regal Gjurich, as Margaret, captivates on the mournful “When There’s No One.” Coloratura soprano Yancey is invaluable.

So, it’s a different “Carrie” in revival. Standart, not needing a Grand Guignol bloodbath, and his production team –- astute musical director Michael Hake, Dominic Giambra’s inventive and energized choreography – all wink at the sophomoric dialogue and mean-spirited moments and do just fine with this more somber version of the original scary “Carrie.”

It’s still creepy though, weird, and there is some fright. Just the right amount of each.

3 1/2 stars out of 4

Through Oct. 10, American Repertory Theater of WNY at Medaille College, 18 Agassiz Circle. 697-0837 or artofwny@msn.com for info.

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