Spotlight: Director Robert Barry Fleming

September 10, 2012

Center REP’s latest production at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts opened last week to rave reviews — San Francisco Chronicle’s Robert Hurwitt calls it “a pleasure” and Pat Craig of the San Jose Mercury News hails director Robert Barry Fleming’s direction as “masterful.” A promising start!

Center Rep describes LUCKY STIFF as a “zany, offbeat and very funny romantic murder mystery farce complete with slamming doors, mistaken identities, six million bucks in diamonds and a corpse in a wheelchair.” The piece was the first professional offering from the creators of RAGTIME, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND and SEUSSICAL — a tidbit of trivia that, alone, might draw the discerning musical theatre aficionado on its own merits — and, though its original Off-Broadway run lasted only 15 performances, LUCKY STIFF has built its own cult following, so much so that a film version is in the works.

We were fascinated by director Robert Barry Fleming’s credits and were incredibly fortunate to steal him away for a few moments after LUCKY STIFF’s opening week to gain a little insight on his career, his work, LUCKY STIFF and what his future endeavors are. Take a look at our Q&A session!

Theatre Road’s Spotlight Q&A with Robert Barry Fleming

You’ve had quite a wonderful relationship with Center REP these last four years – six productions, two SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Awards and two Shellie Awards. How and when were you first introduced to the company?
“Michael Butler was a colleague on THUNDER KNOCKIN’ ON THE DOOR at San Jose Rep, I was then asked to direct the Seattle production at A Contemporary Theatre in 1997, I believe. We lost touch until he became Artistic Director at the REP and got back in touch when he was looking for a director for AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’. It just so happens I had just performed in a production of the show at the San Diego Rep so was primed to take the helm of a production.”

How familiar were you with Lucky Stiff when Artistic Director Michael Butler approached you to direct the piece?
“Like many of my colleagues it was only a title of what was described as a wonderful little show but one I missed seeing due to it’s short run. ONCE ON THIS ISLAND was more familiar to me because I was in NYC at the time and had friends who had just gotten cast in the show.”

Was there anything surprising to come from the production process of Lucky Stiff (i.e. new insights into the piece, an unexpected collaboration, a unique casting process, incredible technical ease or difficulty, etc.)?
“It’s probably the project that required the most pre-production collaboration with my set designer, Kelly Tighe. Once we knew we wanted to do a more elaborate physical production than the original we knew we would have a good deal of work to create the multiple locations keeping the pace of a farce in the forefront of our minds. It was thrilling process meeting with Kelly and Christine Crook to have a cohesive vision, technically it was very ambitious and we got word midway through the design process that there were cuts in the city budget which created some significant and unexpected challenges. I’m try grateful for Michael, Scott and the whole Center REP artistic and technical staff that made extraordinary efforts to assure we had as much support as possible to pull this off. It couldn’t have been done without that collective effort.
Casting was a nerve-wracking experience, trying to coordinate schedules, find actors who were funny but complex and brilliant singers who possessed all the competencies needed to tell this story. It was no small feat. Jennifer Perry is tremendously resourceful and we ended up with a real dream cast for the project in large part due to her commitment to get the very best, not settle for almost good enough and we’ve really hit a home run with this one because of it.”

Tell us about your first experience on stage. What show was it? Where was the production and is the theatre still active? How old you were you at the time and what was your role? And how was that experience for you?
“At 7 years old I was Travis in a production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN at Kentucky State University where my father worked. They wanted my brother who was 10 but he wasn’t interested but for whatever reason I just knew I wanted to do it. It was life changing for me. My mother had taken us to the Chinese Opera in NYC, and Broadway and Off-Broadway shows where I was absolutely enraptured by the spectacle of it all, so I’m sure that had a lot to do with it. The director who is a luminary in Black American Theatre also happened to our neighbor, Dr. Winona Fletcher. She had a great career at the University of Indiana, is a tremendous person and mentor and to this day she remains a dear family friend.”

Actor. Director. Choreographer. Voice and Dialect Coach. Professor. That’s not only an impressive resume but also quite a set of hats you wear. Did you come out of the gate with an aim to tackle each of these roles, or did it all just organically happen over time? And how have you managed a balance?
“They were all roles that organically came out of being an actor. I just kept saying “yes” to certain opportunities. I fought teaching for sometime but was grateful to those who saw it was in my make-up (both my parents were academics). The dialect coaching was fun and proved to be something of an informal ‘observership’ working with so many great directors at the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is important to limit my commitments and make some choices, albeit late, if I wish to make the most of the opportunities presented.”

After working in so many capacities in the theatre, what’s the one function you’d love to try for the first time?

And what’s the one you hope you never have to take on?

You’ve had opportunities to work on such wonderfully disparate pieces – from LUCKY STIFF to TWELFTH NIGHT, HONK to MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM.  What works are you looking forward to tackling?
“I’d like to do more original work and get back to the classics, particularly Shakespeare.”

What’s next for you after Lucky Stiff?
“I’ll be acting in THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS at the Folger in D.C. this fall. We start rehearsals at the end of September.”

~ And, finally, a couple questions for our Roadies ~

What’s your favorite international location (be it your ultimate vacation destination, that one place you’ve dreamed of visiting but haven’t, or your home away from home)?
“I’m a real Francophone and truly love Paris. I would love to spend some time in the South of France… and after having worked on this show, visit Monte Carlo!”

What was one of the most surprising theatrical experiences you’ve come across in your travels?
“Top 3:

3. is a tie: WASTELAND with Fiona Shaw in the burnt out Amsterdamn Theatre in NYC before it was renovated for the Disney LION KING era, and watching CYRANO at the Comedie Francaise in Paris which was like stepping back in time.

2. I loved seeing DV8 Physical Theatre’s production of TO BE STRAIGHT WITH YOU and Ian McKellen’s RICHARD III at UCLA’s Freud Theatre (honestly not because of the theatre but because they were just brilliant evenings of theatre!)

1. Arianne Mnouchkine’s company Théâtre du Soleil in the exposition park of Chateaublanc during the Avignon Festival in 2007. LES EPHEMERES was in a building the size of an airplane hangar with rock hard wooden bleachers in a deserted area of town you had to take a bus to that looked like it had been through a radio active fall out. Yet it was 6 hours of absolutely riveting beauty. My French wasn’t even good enough to keep up with what was being said at the time but the acting was so jaw-droppingly good and the images they created were so out of this world. It was like some existential meditation on the human experience. Next to DV8 or George C. Wolfe’s work (i.e., take your pick: NOISE/FUNK, THE NORMAL HEART, ANGELS, the original production of SPUNK… etc.), I can’t think of a more mind blowing theatrical experience or a more significant influence or marker of what I want to create in the theatre.”


Fall 2012 theater: Center REP goes for the funny bone with Lucky Stiff

By Pat Craig
August 29, 2012

Michael Butler, Center Repertory Company's artistic director, has an enormous pile of plays and musicals on his desk -- new works, underdone classics, off-kilter comedies, door-slamming farces, musicals needing a fresh new staging, and other theatrical pieces that have captured his fancy.

The stack is an inspiration to Butler in his ongoing effort to find plays that Center Rep audiences would enjoy.

"And this," he says, referring to the Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical "Lucky Stiff," "is a perfect show for Rep audiences; they just don't know it yet."

They will soon, if all goes well. The play opens Center Rep's new season Tuesday night at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center. It will be the musical's professional debut in the Bay Area, although it's been around since the late 1980s and has been on Butler's radar for about five years.

"It was brought to my attention maybe five years ago, and I couldn't tell you why I didn't jump on it then," he says. "But you just have to do a show when the time feels right, and it does now."

"Lucky Stiff" was the musical that brought Ahrens and Flaherty to critical, if not public, attention when it was written and performed at New York's Playwrights Horizons in 1988, and it won that year's Richard Rodgers Award. It went on to a brief off-Broadway run, some other minor productions, then traveled to England, where, after several small productions, ended up playing on the West End.

The musical - part farce, part mystery, part love story - didn't do much in the U.S., but it became a popular show among community and school theater troupes.

Ahrens and Flaherty went on to greater fame with such productions as "Once on This Island," "Ragtime," "My Favorite Year" and "Seussical" -- but none of those hits featured a dead guy in a principal role.

"There's a bit of 'Weekend at Bernie's' in it, but with a lot more complications," says Robert Barry Fleming, who is directing

It's also a dead-funny tale of an introverted British shoe salesman who inherits $6 million from an uncle he knew nothing about on the condition that he take the uncle's embalmed corpse on vacation to Monte Carlo. If he fails, the money goes to a woman who heads an animal shelter in Brooklyn.

Fleming, who performed in Ahrens and Flaherty's "Ragtime" on Broadway, said he was drawn to the show by the complexity of the farce and the show's well-rounded characters.

"I'm doing it because the hero is completely out of character and it does have a very human heart at its center," he says. "Then there are all those props needed to make these very involved moments fully flesh out, and it's just so much fun."

The Lesher Center production features some familiar performers, including Tielle Baker, Evan Boomer, Lynda DiVito, Taylor Jones, Marcus Klinger, Dani Marcus, Keith Pinto, Benjamin Pither, Joel Roster and Colin Thomson.


Lucky Stiff revived collaborators' career

By Chad Jones
August 29, 2012

Before they were writing anthems to hope in "Ragtime" or songs of sublime silliness in "Seussical," musical collaborators Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty made a musical about a corpse and $6 million.

"Lucky Stiff" was not a hit when it opened off-Broadway in 1988, but the musical comedy farce did signal the arrival of a powerhouse duo that would go on to win a Tony Award for "Ragtime" and earn an Oscar nomination for songs from the animated film "Anastasia."

The musical, about an English shoe salesman who must take his recently deceased uncle's body to Monte Carlo in order to inherit the dead man's millions, closed after 15 performances. So what did Ahrens and Flaherty do then?

"We went out and got drunk," Ahrens says with a laugh on the phone from New York. Flaherty, who is also on the line, says he was playing piano for the show "Nunsense" at the time.

"I was sure I was destined to be in the pit forever," he says.

Though "Lucky Stiff" turned out to be unlucky the first time out, the show about the dead guy has found new life in theaters all over the country, including Walnut Creek's Center Repertory Company, whose production begins performances Friday. There's even a movie version coming out next year.

Ahrens found Michael Butterworth's 1983 novel "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" at aNew York Public Library sale of unloved books. She thought it looked crazy and wild, and she and Flaherty were looking for something to turn into a musical.

Flaherty remembers Ahrens showing him the book and thinking it would make a great knockabout farce, even though he'd never really considered writing a farcical musical.

"I thought the possibilities were great," Flaherty says. "We could send up musical forms like French nightclub singers and power ballads."

British writer Butterworth heard a few early demos of the songs and happily granted Ahrens and Flaherty the rights to his novel. He died before the show was completed.

During the show's development process, Ahrens and Flaherty shared parts of it at the Dramatists Guild for audiences that included other musical theater composers, including Stephen Sondheim.

"Sondheim told us the show should be fun and silly, like an Ealing Studios comedy," Ahrens says. "We hadn't thought of that, and he was right."

In early drafts, the score was witty and clever, but that turned out not to work.

"The show wanted, in fact, to be wilder and crazier," Flaherty says. "It needed to be quirky and oddball. We had a beautiful ballad in the score, but as we figured out the right tone, we realized that a farce couldn't accommodate a beautiful ballad. It had to be a comedy ballad."

"We learned you could have emotion, but without a high element of comedy, you'd derail the show," Ahrens adds. "We learned to stay on the laugh track."

Robert Barry Fleming, who directs and choreographs Center Rep's "Lucky Stiff," says the trick to farce is making it light and fun for the audience. But that requires a lot of hard work on the part of the cast and creative team.

"Just trying to negotiate the number of props is staggering," Fleming says. "It's technically very complex with slamming doors and a dead body - played by a living actor - in a wheelchair. It has to be fun and frothy but still recognizably human. It has to work like a finely tuned machine but without being mechanical. This show is a huge challenge - but a fun challenge."

"Lucky Stiff" marked the musical theater debut for Ahrens and Flaherty, and now it's marking their first movie musical as well. Filming completed a few weeks ago, with Jason Alexander and "The Book of Mormon" Tony winner Nikki M. James starring.

"This show makes you laugh for the sake of laughing, with a little romance thrown in," Ahrens says. "People crave that. I think that's why 'Lucky Stiff' stuck around and is now a movie. People want to have a good time and enjoy themselves. 'Lucky Stiff' is that kind of show."

Christopher Ashley Will Direct Film of Lucky Stiff, Starring Jason Alexander, Nikki M. James, Dominic Marsh, Jayne Houdyshell

By Andrew Gans
May 17, 2012

Christopher Ashley, who helmed the 2010 Tony Award-winning Best Musical Memphis, will direct the screen adaptation of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's 1988 musical Lucky Stiff.

Ahrens has adapted the stage production for the screen, and she and Flaherty have written additional songs. Ashley, who also serves as the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, has enlisted choreographer Joey Pizzi (Burlesque) to stage the film’s dance numbers.

The cast for the film will be headed by Tony winners Jason Alexander and Nikki M. James as well as British newcomer Dominic Marsh and two-time Tony nominee Jayne Houdyshell.

Lucky Stiff concerns an unassuming English shoe salesman who is forced to take the embalmed body of his recently-murdered Atlantic City uncle on a vacation to Monte Carlo. A windfall of $6 million is at stake.

Marsh, according to a press statement, "portrays the hapless London bachelor, while James plays his romantic rival for the inheritance. Alexander plays a nerdy optometrist who's been sucked into the adventures by his impulsive near-sighted sister, portrayed by Pamela Shaw."

Lucky Stiff premiered at Playwrights Horizons in April 1988 and was the first show of future Tony Award winners Ahrens and Flaherty to be produced outside a family-theatre arena (they had collaborated on a Theatreworks USA musical for kids).

Ahrens penned book and lyrics, Flaherty the music, drawing on the Michael Butterworth novel, "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo." Lucky Stiff was the recipient of a 1988 Richard Rodgers Production Award and 1990 Helen Hayes Award for Best Musical.

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Broadway credits include the Tony Award-winning Ragtime, and Once on This Island and Seussical, plus Off-Broadway's A Man of No Importance and more.

The film is being produced by New Oz Productions’ Victor Syrmis and Branded Pictures Entertainment’s J. Todd Harris. Mark Moran co-produces. Filming is scheduled to begin in mid-June in Southern California.

Center REP to present Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' Lucky Stiff

By Bethany Rickwald
July 12, 2012

Center REPertory Company is set to present Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's musical Lucky Stiff, August 31 - October 7. Robert Barry Fleming will direct and choreograph.

The show is an offbeat romantic murder mystery with slamming doors, mistaken identities, six million bucks in diamonds, and a corpse in a wheelchair.

The cast will feature Tielle Baker, Evan Boomer, Lynda DiVito, Taylor Jones, Marcus Klinger, Dani Marcus, Keith Pinto, Benjamin Pither, Joel Roster, and Colin Thomson.