Los Angeles Theater Review: LUCKY STIFF (Actors Co-op in Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on May 22, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


Before composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens were, well, the Flaherty and Ahrens who created Once on This Island, Ragtime, Suessical, et al., they were a young upstart pair of ambitious writers. Their first project, Lucky Stiff, a musical farce based on Michael Butterworth’s 1983 novel The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, is fluff of the highest order. Quite a few of Ahrens’ lyrics are so funny and integrate so well with Flaherty’s shrewd melodies that it’s clear why Playwrights Horizons produced the 1988 off-Broadway run. But the musical’s mistakes elucidate why it shuttered after 15 performances. (That doesn’t mean it sucks; remember, Sondheim’s Assassins closed off-Broadway after 73 performances.)

The problem is Ahrens’ libretto, which gets bogged down with an overabundance of confusions and slamming doors (especially in the second act) instead of concentrating on character first (study Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off for that). While there’s an imbalance of tone between farce and love story in the book, the songs are quite good (there’s a 1993 studio cast CD and a 2003 off-Broadway revival recording). It is because of the tunes (orchestrated for a tiny band), a relatively small cast for a musical (ten), and, especially, because of the songwriting duo’s rocket to fame, that Lucky Stiff is produced with alarming frequency, most often at small regionals and schools.

At Actors Co-op in Hollywood, it’s easy to catch glimpses of just how entertaining and riotous Stiff can be. But glimpses are all there is.

The wacky goings on start with Harry Witherspoon (Brandon Parrish), a hapless shoe salesman in London, who discovers that an uncle he’s never met—a New Jersey casino owner named Anthony (Vito Viscuso)—has died and left him $6 million. But there’s a catch: He must first take his uncle’s embalmed body to Monte Carlo for that last trip of a lifetime. If Harry fails to fulfill his uncle’s posthumous instructions exactly, which includes passing off wheelchair-bound Tony as alive, the bucks go to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn. Meanwhile, mousy dog lover Annabel Glick (Claire Adams) is keeping a very close eye on Harry.

Reading in the paper that Harry is inheriting the money, Atlantic City floozy Rita LaPorta (Rory Patterson), who is legally blind and believes she accidentally shot her lover Tony, convinces her optometrist brother Vincent (Brian Habicht) to join her in Monte Carlo. This is where comedy is supposed to ensue.

The many parts, played by multiple actors, include, for a start, barking dogs, tourists, bellhops, a shady sheik, a drunk maid, and a loud-mouthed gun-toting dame from Atlantic City. It’s mindboggling to consider the work it must of taken for the game cast just to memorize the swift blocking through Lex Gernon’s adorable design of a stationary backdrop. They must deal with constant entrances and exits in the wings and deal with slamming hotel doors (behind which sits the excellent four-piece band) while handling wheelchairs, props, and wig changes with aplomb. While singing. It’s a lot to take in. For them and for us.

Sadly, instead of guffaws and chortles, all the shenanigans had the opposite effect last weekend; it was enervating because the continuous set-ups fell flat far too many times—a few sight gags excelled but many were amateurish and, worse, some were head-scratchingly unclear. I loved a few actors, but too many performances were forced (screaming does not equal funny) while others were ridiculously underdeveloped (as Harry’s love interest, Ms. Adams was practically nuance free; she was in a completely different play altogether). The most continuously successful at understanding farce was Gina D’Acciaro in a variety of roles.

But the issue here isn’t timing, per se. It’s Stephen Van Dorn’s direction. While there were some inspired bits, they were few and far between. (One remarkable bit of lunacy: A cast member gripping a wheelchair had his legs held aloft offstage; this brilliantly mimicked being underwater.) It felt like some actors came up with bits rather than the director because there was quite a bit of unmotivated movement.

The frenzy here needed to be choreographed within an inch of its life, but this felt like fuzzy farce. Julie Hall’s fun dancemaking was handled quite well given the tiny space, but even when the group scenes found everyone reaching their mark with razor-sharp precision, the sight gags just didn’t fly. (Changing outfits right in front of us—while loaded with potential a la The Carol Burnett Show—came off as clumsy more often than not.) Additionally, I never understood why some scenes were played upstage in a corner when they desperately needed to be down front.

Most of the important plot points are expressed in the songs and that’s where the show really worked. In many respects, the lively and often very clever score is surprisingly good, but I wonder if any production can make a gem out of this show. Still, under Taylor Stephenson’s musical direction, the cast sang swell, and dialect coach E.K. Dagenfield really impressed me. I could hear every word thanks to Warren Davis’s sound design, and Vicki Conrad’s creative costumes were really quite realistic given their whimsy. Krys Fehervari’s wigs, it seemed, were intentionally implausible. It’s just a shame that the farce on stage was just as far-fetched.

photos by Lindsay Schnebly

Lucky Stiff
Actors Co-op
David Schall Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St.
(on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood)
Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 2:30; some Sat’s at 2:30
ends on June 18, 2017
for tickets, call 323.462.8460 or visit Actors Co-op

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