Sunday, November 22, 2015

On Broadway—'Misery' with Bruce Willis; 'Allegiance' with George Takei

Written by William Goldman; directed by Will Frears
Performances through February 14, 2016
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Music & lyrics by Jay Kuo; Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione
Directed by Stafford Arima; choreographed by Andrew Palmero
Performances through September 25, 2016
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis in Misery (photo: Joan Marcus)

Misery began as a trashily effective Stephen King novel, followed by a trashily effective Rob Reiner movie, which won an Oscar for Kathy Bates as the ultimate deranged fan, Annie Wilkes, who first saves the life of her favorite author, Paul Sheldon, then takes her revenge after reading his latest novel and discovering he killed off her favorite character, Misery Chastain.

It's a clever enough conceit, as some of King's story ideas are, even if—after devouring his novels as a gullible teenager—I realized how excess verbiage and an aw-shucks style made his books unreadable once I became aware of good writing. William Goldman—who also wrote the script for the Reiner movie—has streamlined the story further for the stage, distilling the cast to three: Paul, Annie and Buster, the local sheriff who finally pays for his inopportune visits.

In a trashily effective—if not especially taut—90 minutes, Misery onstage provides the same thrills of its earlier incarnations, although why this version is necessary is another question. It serves as a vehicle of sorts for Bruce Willis as Paul, who spends most of his time either prone in bed or in a wheelchair, hunt-and-peck typing out a new novel. Willis barks out his crude lines credibly enough and even gets in a few profanity-laced insults at the woman Paul comes to loathe after initially thanking her for digging him out of his car in a blizzard.

But the play, movie and novel all belong to Annie, and onstage Laurie Metcalf gives a persuasive and just enough over-the-top portrayal of a self-sufficient woman who just happens to be crazy. Metcalf happily doesn't ape what Bates did in the movie, making Annie more pathetically than evilly monstrous in her desperate attempts to "keep" her beloved author.

Will Frears directs efficiently on David Korins' revolving set, which cleverly shows off Annie's house from the bedroom where much of the action takes place to her kitchen and outside porch. Despite its lack of forward momentum, this Misery gets the job done.

Lea Salonga and George Takei in Allegiance (photo: Matthew Murphy)

A painfully earnest venture, the new musical Allegiance covers the same ground as Alan Parker's film Come See the Paradise: that horrible moment in American history when, after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up Japanese-Americans and sent them to internment camps. Such worthy subject matter needs exploring, but both the 1990 film and the musical are marred by contrived storytelling and slathered-on sentimentality.

Through clunky expository dialogue that over-elaborates about everything—there's discussion of the term "gaman," which someone actually explains to another character (but really us) that "it means 'to carry on'"—implausibly soap-operaish plot turns (including the fatal shooting of our hero Sammy's pregnant fiancée Hannah) and perfunctory songs that alternate between soaring ballads and soaring anthems, Allegiance dramatically wrong-foots it at nearly every turn.

What helps improve things are the staging and performances. Stafford Arima's directing and Andrew Palermo's choreography move the large cast about fluidly, making even a problematic sequence as soldier Sammy leading his unit into a suicide mission in Italy work, with Howell Binkley's boldly impressive lighting putting us in the midst of the carnage; similarly, Binkley and Palermo visually illuminate a wordless sequence about the Hiroshima atomic bomb. 

Telly Leung is an engaging and charismatic Sammy and Lea Salonga makes a belated (and welcome) return to Broadway by showing off her beautiful, clear-as-crystal voice as Sammy's sister Kei, while Star Trek actor George Takei—on whose family's experiences the show is based—is immensely likable as both the kids' grandfather Ojii-Chan and the older Sammy. Also making strong impressions (despite having little to work with) are Katie Rose Clarke as the idealized nurse Hannah and Christopheren Nomura as Sammy and Kei’s stern father Tatsuo.   

Based on a gut-wrenching subject that current events keep relevant, Allegiance relies on a first-rate cast and production to provide its emotional force.

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