Glendale Centre Theatre follows its sensational staging of Footloose The Musical with Lucky Stiff, an absolutely delightful, albeit smaller scale musical treat, and the first collaboration of Ragtime’s Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.  Though it is based on Michael Butterworth’s novel The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo, movie fans will most likely be reminded of Weekend At Bernie’s. You remember Bernie, the corpse that Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman had to convince everyone was hale and hearty and having the time of his life?  Well, the “stiff” in Lucky Stiff is murder victim Anthony Hendon, who has left a $6,000,000 fortune to his British nephew Harry Witherspoon on one condition:  Harry must take Uncle Anthony’s corpse on one last vacation to Monte Carlo.

Should you happen to think Lucky Stiff’s premise sounds a bit too “dark comedy” for your tastes, fear not. With its Technicolor costumes (by Angela Wood and The Costume Shoppe), a pair of captivating leads, and a wacky cast of supporting characters, Lucky Stiff is a bubbly, sparkly, farcical treat—especially as directed and choreographed by Mark Knowles and performed in-the-round by an all-around stupendous ensemble.

“Something Funny’s Going On” sets the production’s comic tone, the entire cast of ten previewing the evening’s festivities in song.  “Something funny’s going on, and it isn’t very pretty.  This is how it all began, with the murder of a man… Bang!  Oops! In Atlantic City, New Jersey.  There’s a fortune and a chase, and a lovely foreign place, and the body isn’t cold yet … in New Jersey.  Something funny’s going on.  There’s an awful lot of action, and a physical attraction, and a lot of dogs! There’s  fortune to be won and a woman with a gun and the body of a man and an axe about to fall in the middle of it all!” 

Sound intriguing?

The murdered man in question, the aforementioned Anthony (Kyle Kelley as the deceased), has had the misfortune of being accidentally shot by his Jersey-girl lady friend Rita La Porta (Alison England).  The fortune, all $6 million of it in a heart-shaped boxful of diamonds, was embezzled by Rita and Anthony from her gangster husband.  Harry (Jason Webb) would be jumping for joy if not for one tiny catch in his uncle’s will.  Harry is forbidden to make even the slightest mistake while accompanying the wheelchair-bound corpse (body conveniently embalmed by a friendly taxidermist) through Monte Carlo (the “lovely foreign place” of the opening number). If he does, the entire six mil will go to the Universal Dog Home Of Brooklyn!  The physical attraction sung about is the one which grows between Harry and Annabel Glick (Kelly Michelle Smith), the pretty young Dog Home representative who has followed Harry to Europe to make sure he trips up.  Completing the picture are Luigi Gaudi (James Warnock), Harry’s Italian tour guide, and optometrist Vinnie De Ruzzio (Clayton Shane Farris), Rita’s brother, on the run from the mob after being blamed by Rita for the embezzlement.

GCT’s production is the third time Webb has played Harry, and it’s hard to imagine anyone better as the bookish shoe salesman whose Saturday nights are usually spent doing inventory. Webb has a playful, wide-eyed innocent quality that serves him well in the role, and just the right tenor to sing Flaherty’s tuneful melodies.  He has great chemistry with the adorably pouty, pigtailed Smith, who you just know is going to fall for her archenemy (and the enemy of dogs everywhere).  Webb and Smith share a delightful boy-hates-girl duet (“Dogs Versus You”), and Smith gets the evening’s plum vocal assignment, and one of the best Ahrens and Flaherty songs ever, “Times Like This.” “He listens when you tell him things.  There’s nothing you can’t say.  And unlike certain people, you can teach him how to stay. In times like this I sure could use … a dog.”  Charmed by Ahrens’ lyrics?  Just wait till you hear the exquisite melody Flaherty wrote for them. You’ll fall in love with the song, as I have.

Stealing every scene she’s in is the absolutely phenomenal England.  With her brassy demeanor, her teased-high Jersey hair, and a voice that can out-Merman Merman, England is a couldn’t-be-better Rita.  (If ever there’s a musical of The Sopranos, producers need look no further than England for one of the leads.) Farris does wonderful work too as Vinnie, both vocally and comedically, and the same can be said for GCT favorite Warnock.  Since the dead don’t talk, Kelley had no lines to learn for his part, but even without words (or a breath in Anthony’s body), the actor gets as many laughs as his alive-and-well castmates, who have the fun assignment of manipulating his arms, face, and entire body to great slapstick effect.

Over two dozen other roles are brought to vivid life by the remaining four cast members, who create a dazzling array of characters, sport a dazzling array of costumes, and elicit laughs galore.  As French nightclub chanteuse Dominique Du Monaco, among others, a terrific, sexy Alex Rose Wiesel gets to “Ooh ooh ooh” and “Ahh ahh ahh” and “Ooh la la” with the best of them in “Speaking French.” Jason Keef is versatility personified as a veddy veddy British solicitor, a deliciously unctuous French emcee and singer a la Yves Montand, and the tallest nun ever to don a Sister Bertrille cornette. A very funny Stephanie Hayslip gets a half dozen roles to disappear into, including a nosy English landlady and a drunken Irish maid (who mistakes Anthony for the laundry).  Finally, an utterly engaging Leo Foti dons a bright orange punk wig, switches from uniform to uniform as a bellhop and a pair of waiters, and falls apart (literally) as, of all things, a leper.

Knowles, who choreographed GCT’s Scarlet Pimpernel, wears dual hats here.  His direction is snappy and swiftly-paced, with memorable scenes aplenty, including a particularly event-packed day of shopping, gambling, museum-going, skydiving, fishing, and scuba diving (each with appropriate costumes). There’s also Dominique’s flashy cabaret number, with bump after bump and grind after grind, and Harry’s nightmare, featuring the entire cast sporting dog masks lit to spooky black light perfection.  Choreography is bright and bouncy, most notably in the Acts One and Two openers, and the Club Continentale nightclub sequence.

Once again musical director Steven Applegate does first-rate work with a first-rate cast, and the show is nicely underscored with prerecorded tracks.  Tim Dietlein has devised an ingenious in-the-round set design made up of multiple modular units which mix and match to form beds, chairs, desks, a nightclub bar, etc., and his lighting (particularly the black light nightmare) gets high marks as well.

Ahrens and Flaherty followed Lucky Stiff with Once On This Island, My Favorite, Year, Seussical The Musical, A Man Of No Importance, Dessa Rose, and, most famously, their Tony-winning score for Ragtime.  Their first effort remains one of their best, and GCT’s terrific staging more than does it justice.  Lucky Stiff is as tuneful and fun a musical as you’re likely to see this late-summer.  You may not die laughing, but you’ll have one heck of a good time.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
September 3, 2009

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