Going to the dogs

Lucky Stiff

Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Brian Swasey
Astoria Performing Arts Center
31-30 33rd St. (718/393-7505)
Equity showcase (closes Feb. 27)
Review by Charles Battersby

Lucky Stiff was penned by the same team who created Once on this Island and Ragtime (with Terrence MacNally). Lucky Stiff never quite attained the success of Ahrens and Flaherty's other work, but it's an absolutely enjoyable little musical farce.

In Lucky Stiff, downtrodden shoe salesman Harry Witherspoon (Ron DeStefano) discovers that he'll inherit six MILLION dollars from an uncle he's never met. The only catch is that he has to take his uncle's corpse on vacation to Monte Carlo, and convince everyone that he's still alive (in a wheelchair, and wearing sunglasses, of course). To digress a bit, it should be noted that this musical originally opened at Playwrights Horizons a year before Weekend at Bernie's (a terrible film with a similar premise) premiered.

Dead Uncle Tony left extremely detailed instructions on how his posthumous vacation should go, and if Harry fails to follow the instructions to the letter, then the entire inheritance goes to a dog shelter in Brooklyn (Harry, incidentally, hates dogs). Enter Anabel (Amanda Ryan Paige), an employee of the dog shelter sent to keep an eye on Harry. She starts out as a bit of a villain, but it's no surprise that she ends up as Harry's love interest.

Because this is a farce, there has to be a subplot involving gangsters and stolen jewels. Unbeknownst to Harry, the inheritance is in the form of diamonds, and Uncle Tony stole them from the Mob. The real villains enter with plans of getting back the goods and possibly doing in Harry as well. It all adds up to zany madcap hijinx, with a heaping dose of corpse-in-a-wheelchair gags.

Leads DeStefano and Paige made a nice couple, and had enough chemistry to pull off the rather predictable arc of their love story. Supporting cast was strong enough, though there was the occasional bit of hamminess. The corpse, incidentally, was played by a real live person (Howard Brewer Jr.) who was a newcomer to the stage but did a fine job of being dead.

Director Brian Swasey has a considerable amount of musical theatre under his belt, and there were a few scenes that really stood out here. One was when a pseudo-French chanteuse (Susan Wilson) romances Harry with an over-the-top sexy number called "Speaking French." Then there's Harry's nightmare song "Welcome Back Mr. Witherspoon," where a chorus of singing demonic dogs menace the hero, done with eerie dog masks mounted on top of the company's heads (masks by Holly Lehman) and some zany choreography (plus spooky lighting by Niklas Anderson).

Since Uncle Tony spends most of the show being wheeled around in a wheelchair, the stage had to be handicapped accessible, so set designer Marie Lynn Wagner crafted a huge playing area with ramps along each side and a hole in the middle (used for a few gags, including a snorkeling bit).]

The story here is not intended to be an earthshaking drama. It's pure farce of the silliest sort, complete with a just-barely-possible plot twist and happy ending. This production of it was a fine example of the genre.

(Also featuring Laura Daniel, T.J. D'Angelo, Greg Horton, Tommy Labanaris, Darren Rozumek, Adrienne Asterita, and Michelle Doucet.)

Box Score:

Book: 1/Lyrics: 2/Music: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 1
Set: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2005 Charles Battersby