Halfway through "Carrie," I suddenly wished I could take back some of the nasty things I said a few weeks ago about "Chess," because "Carrie" is so disgusting it makes "Chess" look adorable.
A show about a girl who discovers she has diabolical powers related to her menstrual cycle is not everybody's idea of a musical.
Even if this is your cup of tea, you might not dig "Carrie" because the story is so lamely told you can't possibly understand it unless you've seen the movie or (God forbid) read the Stephen king book. "Carrie" is about a high school loner who exacts revenge on the kids who have made her life miserable.
This version makes no more sense than 2 1/2 hour of MTV, which, of course, is what it looks like. Carrie's high school seems to prepare its students for careers in disco, the girls as dancers, the boys as bouncers. We never see the kids except in gym class where the teacher dresses like a hostess in a cocktail lounge.
The girls don't look like teenagers at all. Their bodies don't have the bloom of youth. They're either too angular or too fleshy. Their faces are hard and haggard, like they've just come off a rough bus-and-truck tour playing the hookers in "Sweet Charity."
You know director Terry Hands was desperate because the opening number, a calisthenics class, ends with the girls building a pyramid, the sort of gimmick you save to end the first act. As if that's not enough, they then do a modified strip as they prepare to shower. The effect is not titillating, just tacky.
But everything about the show is tacky. Ralph Koltai's sets are oddly abstract. When I first saw the gym, which looks like a cube of white formica, I thought, how great it will be with blood splattered all over the walls.
But the final effect, in which Carrie uses her special powers to destroy her classmates, is, especially for a show with so much blood imagery, utterly anemic - some laser beams and what looks like the sputtering tail end of fireworks. If musical theater nowadays is going to be about special effects, let's at least give them their $50 worth.
Debbie Allen's choreography, apart from one number that reminds you of the Bob Fosse steps she did in "Sweet Charity," is disco stuff, energetic but meaningless. It seems obsessed with the pelvis, but then so is the show.
You already know the title song. Just sing "Call Me" with the word "Carrie," and make the A as flat as possible, and you've got it. Michael Gore's music, which reminds you of all sorts of other scores, even "Phantom," is either monotonously hard-driving or tiresomely sweet. For me, the high point of the lyrics was rhyming "attitude" with "I've been screwed." (There is enough gratuitous vulgarity in "Carrie" that I wouldn't send a child.)
Linzi Hateley, who plays Carrie, is an appealing young performer, and I'd like to see her in something else. As her puritanical mother, Betty Buckley poses a lot with the demonic glare Joan Crawford had in her later pictures. She sings well, but the impact comes from turning up the volume rather than the emotional weight of the songs.
For most of the cast, the goal seems to have been to make the characters obnoxious, and everyone has succeeded mightily. The exception is the engaging Darlene Love as the gym teacher.
The costumes are tasteless, particularly one for the supposedly prudish Buckley. But if you're doing a musical about a girl for whom "the curse" is literally a curse, why should taste matter?
Surprise, surprise! Terry Hands' blood, sweat and tears staging of "Carrie" for his Royal Shakespeare Company works.
Part morality play, part melodrama, part grand guignol, part laser show, the one thing that no one can deny about "Carrie" is that it is definitely a theatrical handful.
When this musical - based on the modern Gothic-style horror novel by Stephen King and its phenomenally successful screen adaptation - opened at the Virginia Theater last night, few could have known quite what to expect. Apart from the blood.
Scheduled as the last show of the 1987/88 season, a slight postponement for fine-tuning made it, by chance, the first show of the 1988/89 season. This postponement was merely the last mishap in a concatenation of accidents that has haunted the musical right from its disastrously received and critically trashed English out-of-town opening in Stratford-upon-Avon, after which it replaced its star and reworked its entire firmament.
The result of all these switches and changes in a project that seemed, at best, unlikely from the outset, has unexpectedly emerged as a strong, effective and remarkably coherent piece of terrific total theater.
This "Carrie," unlike the novel or movie, abandons realism for the black and white - plus red for blood - of a schematic morality play, replete with the forces of good and evil, to say nothing of a cathartic finale of biblical proportions.
"Carrie" as visualized by Stephen King's novel and Lawrence D. Cohen's original screenplay adaptation, triumphantly combined thorough-going naturalism - the timeworn familiarity of school-room, suburban home and high school prom - with the shatter-horror of the unknown, a young girl misfit with the gift of telekinesis who brings down the wrath of Beelzebub upon her tormentors.
It was the mixture of the ordinary and extraordinary - right down to that final nightmare hand stretching out from the grave - that gave "Carrie" its punch.
Cohen, and director Hands, together with composer Michael Gore (of Academy Award-winning "Fame" fame) and lyricist Dean Pitchford, have approached the story quite differently as a musical.
It concentrates on such set pieces as the gymnasium, where it opens in a piston-powerhouse display of women's calisthenics, gymnastics, acrobatics and even chorus-line high kicks; the showers; a drive-in; the final prom; while the domestic scenes of Carrie and her insensitively cruel, religious maniac of a mother, Margaret, are played in cube-like stylized settings.
Indeed, all of Ralph Koltai's marvelous high-tech environments, mostly glistening white and moving and slithering around smoothly at the barest hint from the computor, are stylized and depersonalized, as to some extent are Alexander Reid's costumes.
In total effect, Gore's music sounds unmemorable, like movie music seeping into the mind to support the action. Once in a while, helped by Pitchford's unaffected, ungimmicky lyrics, a certain emotionally melodic lyricism is reached, but this is by no means a great score, merely music more than adequate to the purpose.
But this is really Terry Hands' show, and that of his Anglo-American cast. In passing, I note that this is the first time British and American Equities have been able to settle on a totally joint venture - and I not only note this, I beseech all concerned that it not be the last.
Hands' contribution is evident everywhere. As with his earlier RSC musical "Poppy" - which for some reason never reached Broadway - his directorial method here is both operatic and essentially fluid.
It has a kind of spartan epic directness that rushes to the heart of any dramatic action and stresses the momentum of each and every moment, often with the dazzling chiaroscuro of his own intensely dramatic yet usually simple lighting design.
This relentless directorial push finds a good partner here in Debbie Allen's choreography which, while not unduly imaginative apart from the occasional imitative flash of Bob Fosse, is wonderfully dense and energized in texture.
And, of course, there are the special effects, which here are unusually special and effective, including great lasers, a grand collapsing finale with a quietly magisterial epilogue and some nice telekinetic tricks.
And all the collaborators - not least Hands - have had the good sense to realize the mythic possibilities of this original King-size story.
Cohen's book beautifully spotlights the crucial scenes of Carrie's chilling progress to mass destruction, and Hands and Allen let the cast have their way with the larger-than-death legendary story.
As the good girl and bad girl respectively, a conscience-stricken Sally Ann Triplett and a glitteringly venomous Charlotte D'Amboise are simplistically superb, while Darlene Love sings handsomely as the sympathetic teacher who wants to help Carrie.
But the two performances that must support the entire structure of "Carrie" are Betty Buckley's as Carrie's mother, Margaret, and Linzi Hateley's as Carrie herself.
Buckley, with her vinegar and molasses voice, is superbly dramatic as the mother, from her first tortured entrance to her final tragic gesture.
As for young Hateley, an English teenager suddenly projected to Broadway stardom, she has just the right gaucheness, that lumpen, clodlike outsider quality as well as the spark of Cinderella radiance, and while she might miss the full strange force of Sissy Spacek in the movie, she sings with childlike innocence like a fallen angel.
Those who have the time and money to waste on only one Anglo-American musical wreck on Broadway this year might well choose ''Carrie,'' the new Royal Shakespeare Company co-production at the Virginia Theater. If ''Chess'' slides to its final scene as solemnly and pompously as the Titanic, then ''Carrie'' expires with fireworks like the Hindenberg. True, the fireworks aren't the greatest; the intended Stephen King pyrotechnics wouldn't frighten the mai-tai drinkers at a Polynesian restaurant. But when was the last time you saw a Broadway song and dance about the slaughtering of a pig? They've got one to open Act II of ''Carrie,'' and no expense has been spared in bringing the audience some of the loudest oinking this side of Old McDonald's Farm.
Fans of this musical's source material, Mr. King's Gothic novel of the same title, will remember why a horde of mean-spirited high-school students ends up at a pig sty. They want to pull a blood-splattering practical joke on Carrie, the class loser, at the senior prom. But why would the kids perform an exuberant number titled ''Out for Blood'' - leaping over the trough under flashing red disco lights - while carrying out the butchery? Presumably there are still some mysteries that mankind is not meant to unravel. Only the absence of antlers separates the pig murders of ''Carrie'' from the ''Moose Murders'' of Broadway lore.
Were the rest of the evening as consistent in its uninhibited tastelessness, ''Carrie'' would be a camp masterpiece - a big-budget excursion into the Theater of the Ridiculous. Even so, one is grateful for the other second-half pockets of delirium, including a song in which the telekinetically empowered Carrie (Linzi Hateley) cutely serenades her ambulatory powder puff, hairbrush and prom shoes. As Carrie's stern mom, a religious fanatic dressed up in dominatrix black from wig to boots, even the exemplary Betty Buckley earns one of the show's bigger unwanted laughs. ''Baby, don't cry,'' she gently tells her daughter after stabbing her with a dagger.
Most of ''Carrie'' is just a typical musical-theater botch, albeit in the echt West End style (lots of smoke, laser and hydraulic effects). The disaster was not inevitable, since ''Carrie'' was a workable idea for a musical, and because the director Terry Hands, whose Royal Shakespeare repertory of ''Cyrano de Bergerac'' and ''Much Ado About Nothing'' enchanted New York, is a gifted theater man. As the film director Brian DePalma demonstrated in his screen adaptation, ''Carrie'' can make for scary, funny and sexy pulp entertainment - provided the thrills, wit and post-pubescent sensuality are as sharp as that knife.
The musical ''Carrie'' fails in all these areas. It's no surprise that the visual scare tactics concocted by Mr. Hands and the set designer Ralph Koltai can't compete with those on film, but surely someone might have found stage blood (porcine or human) that doesn't look like strawberry ice-cream topping. Though the author of the musical's book, Lawrence D. Cohen, also wrote the film script, his work here is just a plodding series of song-and-scenery cues. The only laughs in the text of this ''Carrie'' are the whopping cliches in Dean Pitchford's lax, pseudo-''Bye Bye Birdie'' lyrics. ''Was it his voice? Was it his smile? I haven't felt so wonderful in quite a while,'' sings the lovesick heroine.
What is most fatal to ''Carrie'' is its inability to deliver its Cinderella story and the encompassing hothouse high-school atmosphere. Oppressed by her Bible-toting mom, Carrie is a naive, awkward shut-in - so unworldly that she has a near-breakdown during her first (and perhaps a Broadway musical's first) menstrual period. When Carrie later blossoms into womanhood under the loving ministrations of a kindly gym teacher (the warm-voiced Darlene Love) and her class's foremost prince charming, the transformation should be real and moving - thereby making Carrie's eventual sadistic humiliation all the more horrifying. But if Ms. Hateley has a belter's voice in the reigning (and amplified) English rock-musical manner, she has none of the vulnerability of Sissy Spacek's film Carrie. Love and acceptance do not transform Ms. Hateley into a romantic prom queen; she still begs cloyingly for our sympathy, as one might expect from an actress whose primary previous stage experience was as an orphan in ''Annie.''
Carrie's classmates are even less convincing. In the opening gym sequence, the high-school ''girls'' are dressed like suburban aerobics instructors and look old enough to be guidance counselors. Carrie's immediate friends and enemies - roles vibrantly played in the movie by Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, William Katt and John Travolta - are amateurishly caricatured on stage (by the hideously misused dancer Charlotte d'Amboise, among others). When the casting errors are compounded by uncertain American accents, Mr. Koltai's abstract black-and-white Mondrian box of a set and Alexander Reid's grotesque sub-Atlantic City costumes, one often isn't sure where or when ''Carrie'' is taking place. Though one scene is set in a ''Grease''-era drive-in, we also visit a teen-age ''night spot'' where the boys and girls dress in black leather and studs suitable for ''Cruising.'' As choreographed by Debbie Allen, who shouldn't wait another moment to return to her performing career, Carrie's senior prom looks like the sort of cheesy foreign-language floor show one flips past in the nether reaches of cable television.
What burning passion is to be found in this ''Carrie'' has little to do with teen-age eroticism or Gothic horror and everything to do with a more traditional Broadway subject - settling scores with a domineering mom. The only surge in Michael Gore's otherwise faceless bubble-gum music is in those songs in which Carrie and her mother do battle. Though the matriarch remains a misogynic cartoon, the fiercely concentrated Ms. Buckley brings theatrical heat to every slap-happy bout of corporal punishment, every masturbatory hand gesture indicating her sexual repression, and every aria invoking Jesus and Satan. After a theatrical decade that has taken her from ''Cats'' to pigs, the time has come for Betty Buckley to receive a human musical as her heavenly reward.