By Rob Thomas
In addition to the program they hand you when you walk into the Overture Center Playhouse to see the world premiere of Capital City Theatre’s “Shining in Misery: A King-Size Parody,” they should hand you a reading list.
The musical parody of Stephen King’s oeuvre crams in so many references and in-jokes to the books, short stories, movies and TV shows of the horror master that it’s impossible to keep up. Sure, there’s Pennywise the clown and Cujo the dog, but when “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” made an appearance, I knew the show was created by the sort of obsessed people who read “Christine” cover to cover in the school library when they were supposed to be doing their homework. (Not that I'm speaking from personal experience, of course.)
But even if your only encounter with Stephen King is watching half of “Carrie” through your fingers, “Shining in Misery” is a broadly accessible good time at the theater, more bawdy than bloody. You can very easily see this show going on the road like other parody musicals, or becoming a staple of late-night theater.
“Shining in Misery,” written by Colleen Duvall and Mark-Eugene Garcia with music by Andrew Abrams and lyrics by Garcia, runs through Sunday, March 5 in the Playhouse.
As the title suggests, the show is primarily a mashup of “The Shining” and “Misery.” Rageaholic writer Jack Torrance (Jonathan Wagner) and his chain-smoking wife Wendy (Madeline Glenn Thomas) have come to the Overlook Hotel for the winter with their mop-topped son Danny (Benji Heying), singing optimistically of finding "a greener mile." But also in tow is Danny’s nanny, Annie Wilkes (Gail Becker), and on a remote mountain road their the car hits Annie’s favorite writer, Paul Sheldon (Cody Gerszweski). Bad news for Paul.
At the Overlook, Jack and Annie are tormented by the resident spirits, who include not only Lloyd the bartender (Jason Williams) but Pennywise (Alex Gossard), Cujo (Erin McConnell) and Rose the Hat (Thomas again). (Given that nearly all of King's work takes place in either Maine or Colorado, it's more plausible that these characters would cross paths than you'd think.)
And that’s just the tip of the King iceberg, as the cast quick-changes into a dizzying multitude of other characters. The hotel set by Kevin Gawley is designed with a multitude of windows, doors and hidey-holes for the actors to pop in and out of, funhouse-style.
The show sends up the musical theater formula almost as much as Stephen King, with parodies of “Hamilton” and other well-known musicals. (I enjoyed the juxtaposition of a serious revival of "Jesus Christ Superstar" onstage elsewhere in the building while this irreverent, cheeky musical was going on downstairs.) The actors break the fourth wall like a madman with a hatchet, and make some sly jokes about the modesty of the production, such as how this big, luxurious hotel seems to have all its key locations in one room.
The winning formula of the music is to pair King’s dark subject matter with bounciest, brassiest tunes, played live by music director Evan Lange. Wagner uses a severed foot as a microphone as he belts out a tune, and “Shining in Misery” contains the “Annie”/”Children of the Corn” mash-up you never knew you needed. The cast is all in fine voice, and the daffy choreography is full of jazz hands and softshoe, especially when Williams re-appears as Dick the hotel choreographer.
Thomas, who played Erin in the national touring production of “The Office: A Musical Parody” that came to the Barrymore Theatre in 2020, is probably the MVP of the cast, nailing the straight-faced silliness that a parody like this needs to succeed. Becker so convincingly evokes Kathy Bates’ sinister vibes as Annie that it’s a little scary, and Wagner ramps up his Jack Nicholson impression as Jack goes nuts.
The show could use a trim, especially in the first act, where there are some dead spots between songs. But overall, “Shining in Misery” floats by for two hours on a wave of cheerful and catchy songs, a talented, high-energy cast of actors, and a barrage of jokes both silly and sublime. You’ll float too.
Writer/Actor/Storyteller. Theatre Maker. Husband. Bad Hombre. Cat Taunter.