Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review: LUCKY STIFF, a To-Die-For Madcap Musical Comedy

L-R: Brandon Parrish, David Atkinson, Gina D’Acciaro, Vito Viscuso, Jose Villarreal,
Selah Victor, and Alastair James Murden. All photos by Michael Lamont

Before Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty teamed up for iconic works like Ragtime, Once on this Island, and their current Broadway hit Anastasia, they wrote a crazy little musical called Lucky Stiff. It was their first collaboration and, though it never made it to Broadway, it won the pair a Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre and launched a 30-year partnership that has helped shape the genre ever since.

It may not have been their biggest success but it was quirky and fresh, and had a unique kind of boisterous charm that audiences loved. The musical is based on Michael Butterworth’s novel The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo about a nervous young shoe salesman named Harry Witherspoon (Brandon Parrish) who has never done anything exciting in his life. He’s unlucky in love and tormented by neighborhood dogs. Harry can’t seem to catch a break.

But when a rich uncle he’s never met dies and leaves him six million dollars, it appears Harry’s luck is about to change. The catch: he must take his dead uncle – now embalmed and sitting in a wheelchair – to Monte Carlo for one last adventure. Should he choose not to take him, or not to observe the detailed instructions his uncle has dictated for the trip, the money will instead go to The Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn. Horrors.

L-R: Claire Adams, Alastair James Murden, Brandon Parrish and Vito Viscuso

So Harry quits his job and sets out on a vacation that takes one unexpected turn after another until the show’s hilarious conclusion. You picture going on a swanky vacation to Monte Carlo with a corpse in tow that you have to pass off as alive. And if that’s not enough, it’s the eighties. Things are going to get big, including Harry’s troubles.

Other than a couple of student productions, the show has rarely been produced in Los Angeles but you can see it now through June 18th at Actors Co-op in Hollywood – and you should. Director Stephen Van Dorn turns this lively song and dance musical into the perfect pick-me-up after a long and exhausting week. It’s full of laughs, intrigue, and mischief, plus a colorful cast of goofy characters who nimbly move in and out of the story. Light and frothy as champagne-spiked cotton candy, you can’t beat it for a good time.

Lucky Stiff isn’t an easy musical to stage. It requires multiple changes of location, often within the lyric of a song or single scene, so creative use of space is a must. Van Dorn smartly plays into the silliness of the plot and solves the dilemma of world travel on a small stage by thinking like a kid. Underwater adventures accompanied by cast members blowing soap bubbles, and a trombone that stands in as the voice of a wife at the other end of a dramatic phone call, are two of many delightful touches that add an element of surprise to the show. Lex Gernon’s breezy set design is a versatile backdrop.

It’s also the kind of musical a cast of character actors can dig into and shine, especially as capable a group as this one. Many of them play multiple roles – dogs, gangsters, assorted international travelers, oddball hotel staff, old biddies, even Hare Krishnas – and with each switch they get funnier and funnier. Gina D’Acciaro’s nosy landlady is only outdone by her bulldog, which is only outdone by her shaky Miss Thorsby, which is only outdone by her drunk maid. Girl can belt too. If she ever announces a one woman show, it’ll be the hottest ticket in town.

It’s easy to root for Brandon Parrish who plays Harry, the underdog-turned-accidental-leading man. He blossoms from frustrated loser into a charming romantic as the story unfolds and Parrish navigates the character’s journey swimmingly. His “I Want” Song – “Mr. Witherspoon’s Friday Night” is quirky and fun, and like many of Ahrens & Flaherty’s songs, full of unusual syncopations and changing time signatures that add an appropriately off-kilter color to the show.

Brandon Parrish and Claire Adams

The other half of the developing romance is Annabel Glick (Claire Adams). All work and no play, it is her home for dogs that will benefit from Harry’s inheritance if he can’t fulfill the requirements of his uncle’s will so she follows him everywhere hoping to catch him making a mistake. The winsome Adams gets the best love song of the show, “Times Like These,” underplayed to perfection and a definite highlight.

On the flip side, Rory Patterson has found her role of a lifetime in Rita LaPorta, the gun-toting girlfriend of the deceased who wants Harry’s fortune for herself. The trap is to play her big and loud, but Patterson makes sure this Jersey girl is also likably insecure. She sidesteps what could be a caricature and instead creates a sympathetic and unusually funny broad. Devil’s in the details and this cast is full of surprises.

Musical director Taylor Stephenson does an excellent job of punctuating the musical irregularities in the score and you can understand every word that is sung. Julie Hall’s choreography fits the caper nicely and includes an absurd tango, an opening production number with the cast literally dancing over the dead man’s body, and plenty of movement-driven bits integrated into both the dialogue and the songs.

A long chase scene slows down the second act after intermission but the pace eventually recovers when the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. In the end, its a no-brainer. Everyone gets what they deserve in this to-die-for madcap musical comedy. Go for the laughs. Stay for the fun.

Clockwise: Rory Patterson, Jose Villarreal, Alastair James Murden, Brandon Parrish
(center), David Atkinson, Brian Habicht, and Selah Victor

Rory Patterson and Brian Habicht

Alastair James Murden

Brian Habicht, Gina D’Acciaro, Rory Patterson, Alastair James Murden, Brandon Parrish,
David Atkinson, Claire Adams, Jose Villarreal, and Selah Victor

L-R: Gina D’Acciaro, Selah Victor, Brandon Parrish, Alastair James Murden, and Jose Villarreal

May 10 – June 18, 2017
Actors Co-op
1760 N. Gower Street
Hollywood, CA 90028

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