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Rising star Molly Ranson gets bloody in 'Carrie'

This much is clear as Molly Ranson prepares for her latest role: There will be blood.
/ Source: The Associated Press

This much is clear as Molly Ranson prepares for her latest role: There will be blood.

Not a lot, perhaps. Not buckets. But just enough. After all, there has to be some of the red stuff if you're playing the title role in a re-imagined musical based on Stephen King's novel "Carrie."

"It'll look good. It'll look real," says Ranson, the 22-year-old actress who is playing the bullied teen with telekinetic powers in the off-Broadway remake at MCC Theater. "It's going to be done really beautifully and subtly — artistically, kind of abstract."

The scent of blood will certainly be in the air, no matter how it's handled onstage. The original musical "Carrie" was actually booed by some in the audience when it appeared on Broadway in 1988 and lasted only five performances after opening night, losing $8 million and becoming the most expensive flop in Broadway history at the time.

But Ranson, sipping lemon-ginger tea at a downtown cafe on a recent morning before heading into the nearby Lucille Lortel Theatre for rehearsals, seems completely unworried about the musical's horror-story history.

"People should come to it with new eyes and ears and be open to a completely new experience," she says. "If they loved the original, I think they'll love this, but they should know it's not the original."

The re-imagined "Carrie" has a bit of old and new. The original creative team — Lawrence D. Cohen, Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, who were responsible for the book, music and lyrics — have reunited under the baton of a newcomer: director Stafford Arima, who also helmed "Altar Boyz."

More than half the songs are new, the structure has been changed and the story is told from a different point of view. The cast is also new, of course, with Tony Award nominee Marin Mazzie playing Carrie's religiously fanatical mother, the part played by Betty Buckley onstage.

And yet so much rests on the slender shoulders of Ranson, a petite, polite New Yorker with a disarming smile who is making her professional debut in a musical. One thing in her favor is something she shares with Carrie: Underestimate her at your peril.

Ranson already has two big Broadway credits to her name — "Jerusalem" opposite Mark Rylance and "August: Osage County" — and two high-profile turns off-Broadway in "The Burnt Part Boys" at Playwrights Horizons and the musical "Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice" in Rochester, N.Y. She also is road-tested, having performed "August" in London and Sydney.

She can do it all — comedy, drama, singing, dancing, stage and film. She found herself in such demand that she lasted only a few months at New York University during her freshman year before taking a leave of absence to be on Broadway. Oh, and she also just shot her first film, the indie "Franny," playing a promiscuous teen who is murdered and stuffed in the back of a car.

Ranson is pinching herself, but very quietly. "I guess I didn't really think about it that much," she says. "If you think about it, you'll weird yourself out. I'm just kind of going with the flow and enjoying every moment."

While attending New York City's LaGuardia High School, the so-called "Fame" school, Ranson won herself an agent, Bill Timms of Peter Strain & Associates. A friend recommended he check out the then-15-year-old in a school production of "Hair."

"She didn't have a big part, but there was something about her," Timms recalls. After meeting her and her down-to-earth mom, he invited the talented teen into the studio to read and sing. "I thought, 'This girl is something special.'"

While most agents might be loath to get a client involved in anything as infamous as "Carrie," Timms knows better. He was well aware of the short-lived original: He saw it four times.

That musical — based on the 1974 King novel, which was turned into a 1976 film directed by Brian De Palma starring Sissy Spacek — was a campy mess, mixing the sound of squealing pigs and smeared blood in one scene, laser beams in another and leather-clad dancers in a third.

Timms knew it was bad, but it had promise and he wasn't scared of revisiting it. "I'm one of those people who says, 'Let's explore.' It's always better to have options," he says. "I did know its history and mentioned it to Molly. But like the wonderful client that she is, she trusted me. She said, 'Yeah, let's go for it.'"

Ranson, who loved De Palma's movie, acknowledges that she had never heard a musical had been made of the material, much less its gory death at the hands of some critics, one of whom even complained that the stage blood looked like strawberry ice cream topping. Ranson thinks the story seems incredibly relevant now.

"Really, at its core, it's the story of a girl who's trying to fit in. It's the story of an outsider, which I think everyone can relate to in one way or another. Especially now, with all this bullying," she says. "It's kind of a great time to be doing this."

Arima, the director of "Carrie," says he had already cast Mazzie as Carrie's mother when he began searching for someone for the title character. He happened upon a YouTube clip of Ranson singing "Back to Before" from the musical "Ragtime," which coincidentally was the same song Mazzie sang when the show debuted on Broadway.

Arima says the two actresses share a similarity of vocal ability, energy, tone and look. He passed her name on to the casting team and Ranson came in one day in late 2009, nailing her audition.

"There was something captivating and spellbinding about her," he says. "There was something fresh, there was something raw, there was something immediate about her audition."

Cohen, the playwright, recalls being increasingly frustrated as the casting progressed. "We saw people who could sing the part, but couldn't act it," he says. "There were people who could act it, but who couldn't sing it."

Eventually, the planets seemed to align: "Molly walked into the room and she had that Carrie quality," he adds. "It turned out she could act it like crazy and she could sing it like crazy."

Growing up on the Upper West Side, Ranson was raised on movie musicals and Broadway records. Her first love was ballet, which led to acting. "So far, so good," she says, smiling.

The path she's taken — putting off college and virtually starting her professional career under the bright Broadway lights — comes with high risk, but Arima says it's working for Ranson.

"For some actors, being thrust into that spotlight so early can do two things: One can shrivel from it or be fearful of the experience, or one can thrive" he says. "I think Molly — though she is a humble spirit — loves a challenge."