nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 11, 2005
Lucky Stiff, currently on stage at Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) in Queens, is quite silly and quite fun. This first show by the team that would go on to write Ragtime, Seussical, and Once on This Island is a madcap musical murder mystery farce, filled with outsized, eccentric characters and centered around a pair of unlikely lovers who, against the odds and perhaps even our better judgment, we wind up really liking and rooting for. At once good-naturedly and old-fashionedly convoluted, hiply post-modern, and darkly comic, it's a zany cross of fluff and mayhem, brought to life with zest and high spirits by director Brian Swasey and an energetic cast at this pleasant outer borough venue.
Originally produced at Playwrights Horizons in 1988, Lucky Stiff tells the story of Harry Witherspoon, an unassuming young English shoe salesman. Just as he is realizing that he is stuck in a rut, an amazing and improbable opportunity lands in his lap: he learns that he is the beneficiary of his Uncle Anthony's will. He will receive the entire estate of $6 million if he just completes one little task—he must take his uncle's corpse (which has been preserved by a taxidermist) on a trip to Monte Carlo. If he follows all of the detailed instructions laid out for this unorthodox holiday, he gets the money. If he doesn't, the legacy reverts to a Brooklyn home for dogs.
Book writer Lynn Ahrens, whose inspiration for this goofy story came from the caper novel The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, pauses long enough in unfurling her exposition to make us question the plausibility of this very odd conceit; but soon enough Harry and dead Uncle Anthony arrive at the Monaco resort and the pace picks up. Harry goes through the preposterous motions of the will, shadowed by nerdly female Annabel Glick, a representative from the Brooklyn dog charity who has been dispatched to report any deviations that will cause the fortune to be forfeited. It's obvious from the first moment that these two will fall in love, by the way; the song where they realize this—"Nice"—is one of the score's highlights.
Both Harry and Annabel are being pursued by Rita, wife of the owner of the Atlantic City casino where Uncle Anthony worked. She was Anthony's lover, it seems, and the $6 million dollars belonged to her husband—she embezzled it and and put it into diamonds, which Anthony has now apparently "brought" to Europe. Rita enlists her optometrist brother Vinnie to help her wrest the diamonds from Harry, who of course doesn't even know they exist.
There's also a mysterious mustachioed fellow named Luigi who keeps turning up everywhere in Monte Carlo that Harry and Uncle Anthony go. Some of these places include a casino where Uncle Anthony's infallible "system" nets Harry some nice pocket change at the roulette table; a nightclub where a chanteuse named Dominique du Monaco sings a show-stopping number called "Speaking French"; and, eventually, all over the resort when Uncle Anthony's body is inadvertently carted away by an alcoholic hotel maid.
Incidents pile upon incident, guns are drawn, secrets are revealed. I'm not giving anything away except that by the show's end, Harry and Annabel emerge from their shells and appear to be on their way to happily ever after: very satisfying.
I'll also tell you that the comic high point is a wacky, surreal dream sequence in which all of Harry's experiences are re-enacted by cast members wearing dog masks (very cunningly crafted by Holly Lehmann).
Ron DeStefano and Amanda Ryan Paige are the ingratiating romantic leads—his singing voice (everyone is, happily, unamplified) is a bit thin but his portrayal of Harry is otherwise engaging; her singing is just lovely, especially on the witty first act ballad "Times Like This." T.J. D'Angelo (Vinnie), Greg Horton (Luigi), Tommy Labanaris (various roles, including numerous waiters and bellhops), and especially Laura Daniel (Rita) lend expert support. Special mention must be made of Howard Brewer, Jr., a retired member of the NYPD starting, most fortuitously, a second career as an actor; he plays the Dead Body.
The ambiance at APAC suits this intimate musical perfectly; there's a community theatre feel here that doesn't usually happen at comparably sized Manhattan venues. Yet this is an Equity showcase with the level of professionalism that that implies. The neighborhood, if you're not familiar, is most welcoming, too. So don't think of this as off-off-off-Broadway (as I heard a fellow audience member pronounce it); think of it as just another great NYC choice. There's theatre in every nook and cranny of our town; that's why we love it here.