Some of Lynn Ahrens' lyrics are so hilarious and blend so well with Stephen Flaherty's smart melodies that it's easy to see the great promise many musical theater folk found in the 1988 off-Broadway run of their first effort, "Lucky Stiff." True, its flaws also explain why it closed after 15 performances. But in the lively revival that opened Center Repertory's 46th season Tuesday, it's a pretty enjoyable show.
Ahrens and Flaherty went on to score better with "Once on This Island," "Ragtime" and more, which is another reason for taking a look at this early effort. That, and the fact that a movie version is in the works. But what sells the farcical crime-caper-romantic-comedy is the brilliance with which the writers juggle those elements, setting a woman's hardhearted tale of murdering her husband to a romantic melody or embedding a love duet in lyrics about how nice it's been to hate each other.
Director-choreographer Robert Barry Fleming and a hardworking cast hit their musical and comic marks in just about every number. Musical director Brandon Adams' quintet renders the melodies and instrumental sound effects with beguiling precision. It's with Ahrens' book, adapted from Michael Butterworth's novel "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo," that the show bogs down at times.
It's the story of unassuming English shoe salesman Harry Witherspoon - Keith Pinto makes awkward diffidence subtly smooth and sexy in the role - who unexpectedly inherits $6 million from an uncle he never knew, a New Jersey casino operator. To secure the cash, he has to take Uncle Tony's preserved corpse on a long-desired holiday in Monte Carlo.
There are complications. Joel Roster is an amusingly inconvenient corpse. A prim, dogged Dani Marcus shines as Annabel Glick, hounding Harry as the representative of the rival claimant to the fortune, a Brooklyn dog charity. Pinto and Marcus are delightful as their songs evolve from antagonism ("Dogs Versus You") through frustration ("Times Like This") to sweetly unexpected - on their part - romance ("Nice").
Lynda DiVito sells near-sighted murderess Rita La Porta's big numbers in a hard, bright voice and comically grating Jersey accent, bringing down the house with her confession of killing her husband and topping that when mistakenly wooing his corpse.
As funny as much of this is, however, Fleming and his cast haven't solved the book's problems. Instead of bringing her complications to a comic climax, Ahrens relies on a thin chase scene and a "Nightmare" number that seem forced and unfruitful.
If the farce falters, though, most of the comedy and songs work very well. "Lucky" isn't a treasure to be rediscovered, but it's mostly a pleasure all the same.
By Pat Craig
September 5, 2012
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's first collaboration, "Lucky Stiff," which they wrote nearly a quarter-century ago, races across the stage like a brisk summer storm, packing gusts of laughter and silliness.
The musical, which opened Tuesday at Walnut Creek's Center Repertory Company, is a sweet and silly show that makes clear from the beginning why this rookie effort brought Ahrens and Flaherty -- who went on to write "Once on This Island," "Ragtime" and "Seussical" -- to the attention of Broadway's musical cognoscenti. But "Lucky Stiff" stands on its own two feet and offers a new angle on the Ahrens and Flaherty style.
It turns out they are rare talents at farce, with a knack for tomfoolery and a machine-gun approach to comedy, high- and lowbrow, where they throw jokes and bits without pausing to let the laughs politely fade.
The story, based on Michael Butterworth's novel "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo," starts off as a fairly simple tale but develops more twists than a mangled drinking straw. Harry Witherspoon (Keith Pinto) is a British shoe salesman with a life as exciting as tepid tea when he receives a telegram asking him to report to an attorney. The attorney informs him his uncle has died, leaving him $6 million, provided he take the taxidermied body of said uncle, Anthony Hendon (Joel Roster), and show him a good time for a week.
Harry has never seen nor heard of the old gent, but he heads immediately to Monte Carlo to earn his inheritance. Also headed for the European gambling town is Annabel Glick (Dani Marcus), a self-confessed not-very-fun gal who works for a dog welfare agency in Brooklyn, which will get the inheritance if Harry fails.
Adding to the adventure is Rita La Porta (Linda DiVito), who thinks she has killed Hendon, who was her lover and partner in stealing $6 million in diamonds from her husband. She enlists her brother, a steadfast doormat of an optometrist (Benjamin Pither), to head to Europe in search of the diamonds.
They all end up at the same hotel, where they run into a variety of characters -- greedy bellmen, drunken chambermaids, girls just wanting to have fun, night club dancers, a greasy-smooth night club singer, various people with a United Nations worth of accents, and others, played by Tielle Baker, Evan Boomer, Taylor Jones, Marcus Klinger and Colin Thomson.
The ensemble is terrific with its hilarious comic characterizations and ability to get in and out of costumes in the blink of an eye.
The principals are every bit as funny, with special praise to DiVito for her hard-as-nails New Jersey bimbo character, and Roster, who shows an uncanny knack for being dead in a very funny way.
Pinto and Marcus pull off the comedy well, but more impressive is their ability to play a pair of youngish people who are not sure of who they are and what they should be doing.
Robert Barry Fleming directs the farce masterfully, providing some nice choreography and establishing a perfect pace for the musical. Brandon Adams provides excellent music for Ahrens and Flaherty's tunes, which deliver laughs as well as real heart-tugging emotion.
Kelly Tighe created an excellent set, filled with doors and wall panels perfect for farcical chases. Christine Crook's costumes set the mood wonderfully, as did Lew Mead's sound design and Wesley Apfel's technical work.
The current Center REPertory of Walnut Creek production is just as good as the London one, if not better."
By Richard Connema
September 14, 2012
What a pleasure to revisit the early Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahren musical, Lucky Stiff. I first saw the show in 1990 in a production by a small, now defunct theatre company in Walnut Creek and I fell in love with the quirky little show. In 1997 I saw a full scale West End production starring Frances Ruffelle, Paul Baker and Tracie Bennett. The current Center Repertory of Walnut Creek production is just as good as the London one, if not better.
Flaherty and Ahrens' score is more workmanlike than memorable, but it is fun, and director Robert Barry Fleming, along with a splendid cast of singer/actor/dancers, presents an excellent evening of pleasurable entertainment.
Lucky Stiff is good stuff with a zany book by Lynn Ahrens. A young man is set to inherit six million dollars if he agrees to take his late uncle's corpse on all-expense paid vacation to Monte Carlo. Others are vying for the salacious inheritance, which turns the trip into an all-out comic free-for-all. There's a romance in there also, and a few surprises at the end that I won't tell you about.
This is the kind of material that could dissolve in the wrong hands, but Fleming, who also choreographs, has the cast on their toes and each has the right comic pitch and expert timing.
Keith Pinto (Fly by Night at TheatreWorks) is perfect for the role of Harry Witherspoon, the unhappy shoe salesman who is about the inherit the fortune. Pinto has the right wholesome looks and terrific vocal cords singing "Lucky" and "Mr. Witherspoon's Friday Night." He also has comic stage presence. Dani Marcus (Musical of Musicals! The Musical and Emma) is a real enchanter as Annabel Glick, who is also out to claim the money—which she wants to use for a stressed dog shelter. Her vocal chops shine on "Times Like This."
Lynda DiVito is hilarious as Rita La Porta, the murderous mafia mistress, and has a powerhouse voice sounding a lot like the late Ethel Merman on "Rita's Confessions" and "Fancy Meeting You Here." Benjamin Pither as the optometrist Vincent also seeking the fortune gives a bang up performance with strong vocal cords singing "Good to be Alive" and "The Phone Call." Taylor Jones is tantalizing as a saucy French entertainer in the Monte Carlo numbers, and Marcus Klinger makes the perfect M.C. in the Vegas-type scenes. Colin Thomson gives a zestful performance as Luigi Gaudi. Also, kudos to Tielle Baker and Evan Boomer who handle an assortment of small roles with flair. Last but not least is the humorously troublesome corpse played by Joe Roster, in a wheelchair throughout the whole show.
Musical director Brandon Adams' quintet solidifies the melodies with mesmeric accuracy. Kelly Tighe has created a wonderful set filled with doors and wall panels which is flawless for farcical chases. Costumes are terrific, especially the outfit worn by Taylor Jones in the "Monte Carlo!" number.
By Kedar Adour
September 6, 2012
LUCKY STIFF: A Musical Murder Mystery Farce! Based on The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed and Choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming. Musical Direction by Brandon Adams. Center REPertory Company, Lesher Theatre,1601 Civic Drive in downtown Walnut Creek, CA. 925-295-1420 or www.centerrep.org. Through October 7, 2012
LUCKY STIFF comes alive at Center Rep
Lynn Aherns and Stephen Flaherty will always be remembered as the musical comedy creative team that captured audiences with Ragtime that won honors for original score (Flaherty) and outstanding lyrics (Ahern) on Broadway in 1998. They started their collaborative careers 10 years earlier with a madcap musical farce Lucky Stiff that had a brief Off-Broadway run and garnered a few accolades. Since that time, the show has been around the block making the boards from the midlands of England to New Zealand and is now being made into a movie starring Jason Alexander. On opening night Artistic Director Michael Butler confessed that he had designs on this play for years. And here it is mustering up all the talents of Center Rep for another visual treat and evening of fun. It doesn’t match the brilliant farce Rumors that graced the stage last year but does match the staging of Xanadu. Once again it is Center Rep not to be missed musical.
Surprisingly Butler who is adept at directing physical comedy turned over the reins to Robert Barry Fleming to shepherd the production. It was a wise choice since the multitalented Fleming also choreographed the show. The play is absolutely silly and harebrained with nonstop action that is the stuff good farce is made of. The set is a marvel with the obligatory four plus doors needed for farce but more about that later.
When the lights come up we are treated to a rousing opening number with the entire cast in unbelievable costumes parading about singing “Something Funny is Going On” People in hum-drum jobs often fantasize about what life might be like if they were in other circumstances. Shy, English shoe salesman Harry Witherspoon (great musical comedy tenor voiced Keith Pinto) stuck in a dull job is able to fantasize about where specific shoes will carry the wearers. On this specific Friday night his personal shoes will carry him back to a boarding house run by a landlady from Hades (Tielle Baker) guarded by vicious (unseen but heard) dogs and filled with raunchy denizens from East London.
Harry receives a telegram informing him that he has (had) and unknown American casino owner Uncle Anthony(Joel Roster) who has been murdered and left him $6,000,000. Before we find out what is to unfold, enter Rita La Porta (Lynda DiVito who belts her song “Rita’s Confession” with gusto) the legally blind lover of Uncle Luigi whom she accidently shot but has also stolen his funds to buy six million dollars in diamonds. She elicits the aid of her optometrist brother Vincent (Benjamin Pither) for her nefarious mission to get the diamonds back.
When Harry meets the lawyer (Marcus Klinger) he is told there is a stipulation. . . Harry must take the embalmed wheel-chair ensconced corpse (Joel Roster) to Monte Carlo. Don’t ask why, just go and see for yourself.
Every musical must have a secondary love plot. How about a do-gooder dog lover Annabel Glick (diminutive charming Dani Marcus) who represents the Home for Wayward Dogs who will get the dough if Harry doesn’t comply with the will. Of course Harry and Annabel will get together (again) after she brings the house down saying to Harry who calls her Annabel “It’s Miss Glick to you. Sharing a bed does not put us on first name basis [or something like that].”
There we are, all set to move around Monte Carlo to continue the wacky, quirky show. This is Aherns and Flaherty’s first show and some of the songs seem forced but the lyrics are extremely clever and satirical. They give their characters ample opportunity to share the spotlight switching to the plethora of roles they invest. Sexy Taylor Jones as a French chanteuse in high-heeled red wedges dances and sings up a storm to match the scene stealing Lynda Divito. There is a hysterical/terrifying dream-nightmare dance number utilizing Kurt Landisman’s lighting to great effect.
Colin Thompson is always a joy to watch in his many get ups including Uncle Luigi or as an Arab Prince. Marcus Klinger morphs from a stuffy English lawyer to a French master-of-ceremonies and others. The willowy Even Boomer fills every other minor role with class and seems to be everywhere at once. You won’t believe the transformation of Tielle Baker from nosy boarding room hag to a drunken French cleaning maid who complicates the action allowing director Fleming to use all the doors on the stage and upper level ramp for a chase to end all chases.
The inventive Kelly Tighe’s set utilizing a revolving stage allows the action to move smoothly. Christine Crook’s costume designs will surely win a Bay Area Critics award. You will never see a roulette table like the one she designed. Joel Roster earns a Tony Award as The Dead Body for his immobility and ‘stiff’ acting. Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.
By Lee Hartgrave
September 7, 2012
This musical was first produced at the Olney Theatre in Maryland (May 1989). It starred Evan Papas and the show won the Helen Hayes Award for Best Musical and Pappas won as Best Actor in a Musical.
There is a studio cast recording (1994). The musical had its British debut at the Theatre royal in Lincoln. And that prompted more premieres.
Now, we come to the extraordinary Center Repertory Company of Walnut Creek that is headed by Michael Butler - Artistic Director and Scott Denison - Managing Director.
How would you like to find out that you stand to inherit $6,000.000 from an Uncle? But there is a catch. The unassuming English show salesman is overwhelmed with his inheritance – but there is a catch. Harry only gets the dough is he takes his dead Uncles’ corpse on a trip to Monte Carlo. It’s either that or all the money will go to the uncle’s favorite Charity, the Universal Dog Home. Those Attorneys think of everything – don’t they?
Poor Harry. This Satire takes Harry on a trip like none you’ve ever seen before. He literally drags the dead Uncles Wheel Chair to fulfill his Uncles wishes. But, that’s not all. Harry meets a bunch of really, goofy characters that are also in hot pursuit of the Uncle’s money.
By the way – there is a Movie in the Works. If I were you, I would see the play first. Then you can tell the Movie fans that you saw the play first. From the play: Here are a couple of quotes – A Woman is pointing a Gun: “Nobody move. And nobody better not say a thing about these Glasses!” I love this one: “You don’t think I’m the kind of girl who goes out and has fun – do you?”
HERE ARE THE REMARKABLE STARS
Tielle Baker, Evan Boomer, Lynda DiVito, Taylor Jones, Marcus Klinger, Dani Marcus, Keith Pinto, Benjamin Pither, Joel Roster and Colin Thomson. – “Filled with Sterling performances!”
Directed and Choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming. Musical Direction by Brandon Adams. GREAT JOB!
RATING: Three Glasses of Champagne!!! –trademarked-