When the musical version of Stephen King’s “Carrie” opened on Broadway in 1988, the reviews were so poisonous that it shuttered within three days, going into the books as one of the most infamous bombs of all time. It was, apparently, the hyperventilating schlock of the enterprise that drew critics’ and audiences’ ire, an attribute that was on display in “Out for Blood,” a number that Carrie’s high school tormenters sang as they, gulp, slaughtered a pig.
A subsequent effort to spare “Carrie” from everlasting ignominy has involved muting the musical’s excesses — including the excision of “Out for Blood.” And yet, as demonstrated by the enervating revival of the show at Studio Theatre, toning down “Carrie” has succeeded only in confirming it as a downer.
In contrast to the masterly creepiness of Brian De Palma’s 1976 movie, the stage version — with music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford and book by Lawrence D. Cohen — comes across as a desultory teenage revenge story with a few bits of supernatural shtick tossed in. Lacking chills and resisting camp, “Carrie” quickly runs out of steam. It’s an insipid march to that grisly prom.
King’s inspired conceit, making the rites of sexual passage the springboard to horror, gave the novel a transcendent, lurid appeal.
The story is of an outcast adolescent, played here by Emily Zickler, who’s caught between a deranged mother (Barbara Walsh) lost in religious fervor and her callous, taunting peers. (“Carrie” identified bullying as a societal ill decades ahead of the current national focus.) Cleverly, “Carrie” draws a correlation between the havoc wreaked in teenage minds by their changing bodies and the frights triggered by gothic tales: It’s Carrie’s terror at the discovery of her own menses in the gym shower that sets the stage for the bloodbath to come.
Except other terrors never sufficiently reveal themselves, certainly not in the grim production for Studio’s 2ndStage program blandly directed by Keith Alan Baker and Jacob Janssen.
Presented on a bare stage in Studio’s raw space, with Sarah Tundermann’s snapshot-projections supplying a bit of visual context, this “Carrie” requires Gore and Pitchford’s score to give the evening all of its energy and color. And while the songs are delivered competently enough — sugary ballads for Carrie and the boy of her dreams (Robert Mueller); uptempo ensemble numbers for their obnoxious classmates; dirges for Walsh’s depressive Margaret — they rarely illuminate anything more interesting about the characters than a few biographical tidbits.
At Studio, the vocally gifted Walsh seems to specialize in bizarre mother-daughter relationships; she appeared in 2008 as society matron Edith Bouvier Beale and eccentric Little Edie in the musical version of “Grey Gardens.” Those roles gave her a far sturdier platform for her skills than does the spectral mom she portrays this time around.
Zickler reveals herself to be a fresh and engaging performer, but aside from costume designer Kelsey Hunt putting her in a bulky cardigan when the other girls strut the hallways in tight tops, this Carrie doesn’t seem “different” enough.
As a result, the monstrous degree to which the pathological Chris (Eben K. Logan) and the other girls prey upon her is merely cartoonish. The dramatizations of her freakish powers are not skillfully realized, either, even given the practical constraints: You’d think that homicidal telekinetic revenge after being splattered with pig blood in front of everyone you know would entail more than pointing a finger.
Maria Rizzo, who played the title character in Signature Theatre’s superb revival of “Gypsy” earlier this year, acquits herself finely, infusing warmth into her portrayal of the most compassionate of Carrie’s classmates.
And while the accompaniment of the five-man band sounds thin, Michael J. Bobbitt’s robust choreography offers up a commendable level of verve. Too bad “Carrie” is otherwise such a somber, sluggish dance with death.
Music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, book by Lawrence D. Cohen. Directed by Keith Alan Baker and Jacob Janssen. Music direction, Darius Smith; choreography, Michael J. Bobbitt; set, Luciana Stecconi; costumes, Kelsey Hunt; lighting, Laura J. Eckelman; projections, Sarah Tundermann; sound, Adam W. Johnson. With AJ Melendez, Jamie Eacker. About 2 hours 5 minutes. Through Aug. 3 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.