You know what’s the scariest thing about “Carrie: The Musical’’? The fact that it keeps getting produced.
The latest troupe to succumb to that temptation is SpeakEasy Stage Company, which usually has a Midas touch when it comes to contemporary musicals. Not this time.
“Glee’’ meets Grand Guignol in SpeakEasy’s “Carrie: The Musical,’’ and it’s not a happy marriage. Set in a small-town high school in western Maine, “Carrie’’ is hamstrung by leaden dialogue, a generic rock score, and a general sense of pointlessness, defeating the efforts of Paul Melone, one of the most talented directors in town.
The original version of the musical famously bombed on Broadway in 1988, lasting only five performances. An extensively reworked version opened off-Broadway in 2012, only to close two weeks earlier than scheduled. Now SpeakEasy is presenting the New England premiere of that pared-down version, with Boston Conservatory student Elizabeth Erardi in the title role.
Within the limitations of the part as written, Erardi delivers a creditable performance as a friendless teenager who discovers, and eventually unleashes, her telekinetic powers. But the real star of this production is the redoubtable Kerry A. Dowling, who plays Carrie’s mother, a religious zealot.
Speaking of zeal: You can’t say the show’s creators don’t believe in their material. In adapting Stephen King’s 1974 horror novel, librettist Lawrence D. Cohen, lyricist Dean Pitchford, and composer Michael Gore apparently saw it as a cautionary tale about bullying, adolescent alienation, the plight of the outcast, and the potentially lethal consequences of pushing an outcast too far.
Heaven knows those are all vitally important matters, all of them memorably addressed last fall in ArtsEmerson’s harrowing production of “columbinus,’’ by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli. But in “Carrie,’’ the band of mean girls (and boys) who incessantly torment the title character — and ultimately humiliate her on prom night — are so thoroughly vapid, dull, and witless that they don’t register as the malignant forces they’re meant to be.
These stock characterizations contribute significantly to the odd combination of earnestness and cartoonishness that undermines “Carrie.’’ I know the campy approach of the original Broadway production led to disaster, but I still couldn’t help wondering if plunging headlong into outright camp rather than playing it straight might — emphasize might — have been this production’s salvation.
You should pardon the expression. You see, the fate of Carrie’s eternal soul is much on the addled mind of her mother, Margaret, a Bible-wielding nutjob. She goes bonkers — make that more bonkers — when Carrie is asked to the prom by one of the school’s popular kids, Tommy, played by Joe Longthorne, an able singer who needs to generate more magnetism in the role. Tommy extended that prom invitation at the urging of his conscience-stricken girlfriend, Sue, who feels guilty about the way she and her friends have treated Carrie. Sue is very well played and sung by Sarah Drake, who beautifully communicates the awakening of Sue’s conscience in “Once You See.’’
Most of the few high points in “Carrie,’’ though, arrive courtesy of the all-out performance by Dowling, who played a mother in the grip of a different kind of madness in SpeakEasy’s “Next to Normal’’ (with Drake portraying her daughter). Indeed, this production’s deepest chills arrive when a wild-eyed Margaret manacles Carrie to a pew for the crime of beginning to menstruate, or when the bereft mother sings “When There’s No One,’’ a song that looks ahead sadly to a loss that she herself plans to cause.
At this point, you probably want to know about that pivotal bucket-of-pig-blood-at-the-prom scene. Well, the aim was apparently off a little bit on opening night, because the bucket’s decanted contents mostly missed Erardi’s head and splashed on her left shoulder, somewhat diminishing the drenched-in-devastation effect. But most of this show’s technical challenges, including Carrie’s telekinetic revenge, are well executed by Melone & Co.
Still, you leave SpeakEasy perplexed by all the effort, over all the years, that have been poured into the stage version of “Carrie.’’ It was a pretty good novel. It was an even better film, at least the 1976 original directed by Brian DePalma (I didn’t see last year’s remake). So what, exactly, was to be gained by putting this story to music? On the evidence at SpeakEasy, not much.