Lucky Stiff is a Hilarious, Goofy Musical with a Big Heart (4.5 stars)
Lucky Stiff, books and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, directed by Caitlin Lowans, with Ilyse Robbins, Choreography, Bethany Aiken, Music Direction, Jon Savage, Scenic Design, Tyler Kinney, Costume Design, Jesica Krometis, Lighting Design, and John Stone, Sound Designer and Engineer, runs at the Stoneham Theatre September 8-25, 2016. See www.stonehamtheatre.org.
by Johnny Monsarrat
Harry Witherspoon is minding his own business when he gets word that his uncle passed away, leaving him $6 million in his will. But to inherit the money, he is sent on a wild journey to France, chased by kooky characters, and antics ensue. There's no question that the play will have some kind of happy ending, but what kind? Although there's a murder, it's not a murder mystery, but rather a comedy set in the genre of mobster murders, like an Ocean's Eleven but with comically incompetent idiots.
The show's strength is its supporting cast. Ceit M. Zweil steals the show as the crazy Rita LaPorta. Even when she's threatening everyone with a gun, she makes her character empathetic, and her stunts and comic accent remind us that in a comedy, no one's going to come to real harm -- except the poor uncle. Perhaps the strongest cast member was Mark Linehan (Vinnie) who meekly scurries from the other characters. It is very difficult to play a "straight man", because it's all about the reactions. He was my favorite dancer and added personality to his comic doubletakes much more than protagonist Andrew Barbato (Harry) whose everyman character was too bland. Kudos to Jade Wheeler (Dominique, Ensemble) who played a variety of strange characters with physical comedic twists that enhanced the comedy and the surreal situations, making her small roles notable.
The play does not take itself seriously, and there are some great winks at the audience in the unbelievable plot twists, but it is all justified by the fun. The staging is the most creative I've seen this year and I believe it to be original to the Stoneham Theatre. It's an assemblage of boxes that with little changes are repurposed as a shoe store, a casino, and more, but it is also a character in the show. Just opening a box to reveal a tiny set inside or a painted door adds color to a scene. At other times, actors appear, popping up from trap doors or out from behind. In a delightful train scene, someone with a train sketch on a stick marches it back and forth behind the set. With another opening of the boxes, the play's live band becomes the live band of one nightclub scene. The musical numbers are great fun and have a few group dances. However, it is not so silly that you stop caring about the characters, especially during the heartbreaking "Times Like This".
The production was not perfect. It was hard to hear the actors over the band, and I think the audience straining to hear may be why there was less laughter at the start. Also, I wonder sometimes if comic theatre shows need a "warm up act" just like stand-up comedians have... someone on stage to get us laughing before the show begins. Twice I saw stagehands crossing backstage in full view, and the play's ending is deus ex machina, improperly foreshadowed and messy. But the result is a fantastic night out that doesn't talk down to you but will give your brain a rest. You should definitely see Lucky Stiff before its run ends. It's a well-deserved 4.5 stars.