Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2005
What a delightful little gem of a musical! Lucky Stiff, currently being given a luminous production at the Theater Barn, was the first musical from the Tony award-winning team of Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) who went on to fame and fortune with Ragtime and Once on This Island. Ahrens and Flaherty were taking a course in musical theatre, and this was their final exam, if you will, the culmination of their work. This shows in its tight construction and brisk pace – I imagine that their assignment was to write a 90-minute musical, which this is, once intermission and the laughter of the audience is shaved off.
Having suffered fanny fatigue at many a 3-hour-plus musical extravaganza in my life, I have to say that there is nothing wrong with getting to the point. Lucky Stiff is small and proud of it. The characters while broadly drawn, are quite complex, and it is up to the music and lyrics to move the story along.
Let me see if I can give you the essence of the fun without giving too much away. Lucky Stiff, based on the British murder mystery The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo by Michael Butterworth, concerns a young British shoe salesman named Harry Witherspoon (Heathe Stecklein) whose lackluster life is suddenly and dramatically altered when he is left $6 million in the will of his American Uncle Anthony. But the money can only be his if he takes the corpse (Sean Loutzenhiser) on a final vacation to Monte Carlo. In hot pursuit is the rival inheritor, the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn, represented by one uptight chick named Annabel Glick (Brittany Brown). They are in turn pursued by the legally blind Rita La Porta (Donna Scheer), Uncle Anthony’s lover who believes she is also his murderess, and her hapless optometrist brother, Vinnie DiRuzzio (Ryan Dunkin). Along the way they meet a mysterious Arab (Ricky Merpi) and a sexy French chanteuse Dominique du Monaco (Laura Binstock), along with an assortment of others (Mike Bellotti, Ben Hobbs, Margaret Kelly, and Alexandra Tarantelli). Mayhem ensues! Who will get the money? Will the fact that Harry and Annabel are escorting a corpse scuba-diving and sky-diving be discovered? And what about that heart-shaped box?
This is all sublimely silly and highly entertaining – perfect summer theatre. This show is bright, funny, tuneful, and clean. Yes, there is a bedroom scene (wait until you see where they’ve hidden the bed!) but nothing untoward happens on stage and true love blossoms from the encounter.
Director Michael Marotta, in obvious close collaboration with the design team, has created a perfect wacky world in which all this transpires. With the exception of a few glitches in getting wheelchairs over doorsills, everything zipped along flawlessly. Marotta and company have let their imaginations run free and come up with some very clever ways to handle tricky technical demands. I loved the clouds and the sky diving scene and especially staging of the number in Act II when Harry dreams of having his fortune and his future literally go to the dogs.
This is a young and energetic cast who appear to be having as much fun performing this bit of fluff as the audience is watching it. Each one performs his or her turn to perfection and it is hard to pick a real stand-out, but I was impressed with Dunkin’s performance, particularly on the song entitled The Phone Call which is a perfect example of musical theatre at its best. During that one number we learn more about Vinnie than we could in endless pages of dialogue. Binstock looks lovely and gets to wriggle her hips in a very swingy little black dress with white feathers round the hem. Scheer is a hoot as Rita, and Brown is an ideal Annabel, getting one of the big laughs of the evening when she announces with great indignation “I hope you don’t think I’m the kind of person who just goes out and has fun!”
Mike Bellotti almost steals the show as one of the nameless rabble, playing, among other things, a nun, a smarmy MC, and an irate wheelchair-bound Texan. I hope this is just a warm-up and that we will get to see this talented and funny performer strut his stuff (literally and figuratively) in The Full Monty later this month. Also good in a number of small roles is Margaret Kelly, who gets to use what must be her authentic Scottish accent as Harry’s curler bedecked landlady.
It is hard not to get a kick out of a dead guy in a wheelchair, and Loutzenhiser is obviously having a ball in this most challenging of roles, but I wished that he and Marotta would have found more opportunities for broad physical comedy here. Loutzenhiser was a little too “pulled together” for a stiff. Either less control or more rigor mortis might have heightened the comic effect.
Marotta keeps the action moving swiftly across Abe Phelps’ fantastically flexible set. When you enter the theatre the stage will appear almost empty, but just wait. Everything is stashed in the wings and mounted on wheels so that set pieces can zoom in and out at a moments notice. Stephanie Luette has come up with a bunch of workable, work-a-day costumes for the leads and a pile of quick-change specialties for the actors who play multiple roles. I can just imagine her sitting in front of a Flying Nun rerun creating that outrageous wimple for Bellotti to wear.
Simultaneously too brief and too expensive in terms of sets and logistics to make a lucrative jump to Broadway, Lucky Stiff looked not so lucky after a mere fifteen performances at Playwright’s Horizon in 1988, despite the fact that Ahrens’ lyrics received the Richard Rodgers Award that year. But a studio cast recording* made in 1994 boosted awareness of the show, and it has slowly found its niche where it belongs, in small regional theatre like the Theater Barn. I predict that I will soon become sick of the sight of Lucky Stiff as it is embraced by community theatres throughout the region.
Lucky Stiff runs through August 21 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
* Not only is this a great show to take the kids to, either of the cast recordings (made in 1994 and 2003 respectively) make swell gifts for theatre lovers young and old. This is one of the first show albums in a long time that really had me hooked from the opening number.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005