Lucky Stiff – Theatre Review, Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

Stiff poster

In the musical farce Lucky Stiff, if you listen closely to what’s being sung during the opening number it’ll tell you everything you’re about to see.   There’s a chase in a lovely foreign place.  There’s a murder in New Jersey, there’s a body and a gun, and there’s a fortune to be won.  In fact, there’s something funny going on at Arizona Broadway Theatre and there are two good reasons to find out why; the songs and the voices that sing them.

Lucky Stiff is the final show of ABT’s current season, and it was the least known title on the lineup.   The show opened off-Broadway in 1988, and even though it ran for only fifteen performances, it found success elsewhere, including award winning performances in Maryland and a staging in London.  There’s even a movie that completed production last year with showings at various film festivals around the country, but, to date, no general release.

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Mild mannered Harry Witherspoon (Seth Tucker) is an English shoe salesman who wishes for a better life.  Just at the moment when he feels he’s going nowhere he receives a telegram and it changes everything.  Apparently, Harry had an American uncle he never knew, and that uncle has left Harry six million dollars, but there’s a catch.  In order to receive the money, Harry has to take the embalmed corpse of the dead uncle on a trip to Monte Carlo in a wheelchair and fulfill specific tasks at specific times, including sky diving, fishing, scuba diving, visiting museums and gambling.  It’s all spelled out in the will.  If Harry fails in any of those areas, the money goes to Uncle Harry’s favorite charity; the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn, all six million dollars of it.

In theatre circles, a general issue considered to be a problem with musical farce is that farce with music doesn’t always work.  Where the regular construction of the stylized comedy and its exaggerated sense of humor requires a buildup that becomes more manic as it goes along with physical humor, broad delivery and a complete sense of the absurd, critics of the genre insist that songs slows things down; they simply get in the way.  That’s what they say.  Not so with Lucky Stiff.  In fact, the songs are the saving grace; it’s writer Lynn Ahrens’ book that gets in the way.

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The plot is as it should be, full of nonsense, broad humor, lots of mugging and occasionally a little incomprehensible; everything you would expect in a farce.  The issue here is the humor and the padding.  The show moves at a breakneck speed, often leaving the audience, and presumably the cast, frequently breathless, and it’s all undeniable fun, but it’s not always easy to laugh; the dialog isn’t quite as witty as you might hope.  Plus, there are moments when the script feels as though it’s propping itself up, particularly in the shorter second half where Harry’s unnecessary nightmare sequence does nothing other than make the production last five minutes longer.  The score, however, is a different matter.

Where Ahrens’ script sometimes falters, her punchy, clever lyrics never do, and neither does Stephen Flaherty’s bright and exceptionally tuneful score.  There’s a faint echo of Sondheim’s Comedy Tonight in the opening number – not in the tune but in the humorous vein of story-telling content – and it’s that style that continues throughout.  The score is akin to early Stephen Sondheim permanently locked in comic mode; the show doesn’t stop for songs, they further the plot.

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In many respects, the lively and often very clever score is so surprisingly good, had writers Ahrens and Flaherty presented the whole thing as a comic operetta told exclusively in song it might have worked better.  As it stands, most of the important plot points are expressed in lyrics and music and that’s where the show really works.

There are ten in the ensemble with some playing several roles, and they’re a great looking, talented bunch.  Seth Tucker’s Harry might stumble on the English accent from time to time, but he makes a wonderful nerdy and continually bemused foil to all the comically well-timed mayhem and black humor swirling around him.  Even Tim Shawver’s immobile and embalmed dead body in the wheelchair makes a presence.  But the real strength of the show is its two leading ladies.

Trisha Hart Ditsworth plays Annabel Glick, the rep from the Brooklyn dog home, and it’s Annabel’s job to shadow Harry everywhere he goes.  One slip on the time table and the six million goes to the dogs.  Annabel’s duet with Harry, Dogs Versus You, is funny enough, but her solo Times Like This where we learn a dog can be a woman’s best friend as much as a man’s is a thing of genuine beauty and it’s Trisha’s powerhouse voice, one that actually seems to grow stronger with every new production, that makes it so.

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ABT audiences may remember Abigail Raye’s funny turn in the supporting role of Paulette in the recent production of Legally Blonde, but in Lucky Stiff, the leggy comedienne takes center stage.  You can’t miss her.  She’s like Carol Burnett on speed but better looking with a voice that can really belt.  Her bizarrely dangerous and legally blind Rita La Porta, the woman who killed Uncle Anthony – it’s complicated – is a truly funny comic creation, and Abigail’s spiky high-heels runs with it.

In a show with high production values that are actually better than the book, director Evan Pappas keeps his cast sharp while music director Mark 4Man’s tight arrangements brings the best out of his orchestra.  The whole thing looks and sounds great.  As a show, Lucky Stiff may not compare as well or as grand as previous productions, but when the score surprises as much as this one does and it’s sung so well as it is here, it remains a perfectly satisfying way to end the season.  Besides, hearing Trisha sing and watching Abigail mug are alone worth the price of admission.

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ABT website.

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