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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Something Funny’s Going On
at the Forum

Also see Bob's review of Carnival!

Lucky Stiff
Susie Paplow and Brian Childers
The superb musical theatre duo of Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) are hardly household names. To a considerable extent, this reflects the decreasing impact of theatre on American culture. It also may reflect the eclectic nature of their efforts, and their propensity to develop projects which they initiate. However, this has not prevented them from rising to the forefront of their profession. Highlights of their considerable oeuvre include the delightful Once On This Island, their breakthrough success in 1990, and the magnificent Ragtime (book by Terrence McNally) in 1997. Their most recent works, the estimable A Man of No Importance (2002) and Dessa Rose (2005) were produced by the Lincoln Center Theatre.

However, way back when - well, back in 1988, anyway, there was Lucky Stiff, Ahrens and Flaherty’s first musical, a musical farce at that. And the enterprising Forum Theatre in Metuchen is now presenting it in a lively, energetic, and entertaining revival for the delectation of New Jersey audiences.

Harry Witherspoon, a nerdy, single British shoe store salesman, receives a telegram informing him that his Uncle Anthony, in Atlantic City, a mobster type New Jersey casino manager, has died and left Harry $6 million. In order not to forfeit the inheritance, Harry must take the preserved by taxidermy body of his uncle in a wheelchair to Monte Carlo for a last vacation, and share with the corpse a detailed schedule of activities (i.e., dining, gambling, scuba diving and sky diving).

The principal added complications are in the form of two femmes. One is Rita LaPorta, the wife of the owner of Uncle Tony’s casino who had been having an affair with Tony. Rita is seeking to recover the $6 million in diamonds which she had helped Tony embezzle from her husband. Rita has dragooned her nebbish dentist brother to accompany her, informing him that his life is in danger as she has told her husband that he was the embezzler. The other is the bookish Annabelle Glick, ready to claim the $6 million for Tony’s favorite charity, the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn, if Harry fails to fulfill the requirements of his uncle’s will.

Although there is nothing of substance here, it is a loosy-goosy, fast paced farcical entertainment. And the music and lyrics of the neophyte songwriting team are superior. Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics carry most of the plot information, and do so with a great deal of wit and musicality. Even in a romantic duet for Harry and Annabelle, her lyrics retain an off beat humor:

It was nice fighting you, nice hating you
Nice knowing I was aggravating you
Amazing, but true
It was nice

You were impossible, unbearable My nerves were almost unrepairable
But now that it’s through
It was nice ...

So nice knowing you, nice meeting you
Nice knowing they’ll be no repeating you
And won’t life be paradise
So sane and calm and plain
And much too nice

On first hearing, it is difficult to realize how lovely Stephen Flaherty’s lively music is. The emphasis is on the jaunty beats and the lyrics. And Flaherty’s music magnificently supports Ahrens’ lyrics. Given the needs which it so well serves, the music is amazingly melodious throughout. And all musical theatre buffs will get a kick out of the coda that makes “Him, Then, It, Her” a parody of the “Tonight” Quartet (Bernstein).

Brian Childers is excellent throughout, capturing the befuddled Harry perfectly. From his introductory lament, “Mr. Witherspoon’s Friday Night,” through the final scene and “Nice,” his lovely and witty duet with Annabelle, Childers is the heart of this production. As Annabelle, Susie Paplow has a nice slightly kooky aspect and sings sweetly.

Karin Leone is a most delightfully comic Rita. She scores big with “Rita’s Confession.” This outstanding theatre song delivers the entire complicated back story of Lucky Stiff with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Ed Carlo as dentist-brother Vinnie does well by the wistful “The Phone Call.”

The entire ensemble acquits itself ably. Special mention is due to Carl Wallnau. The ubiquitous Wallnau, who is artistic director of the Centenary Stage Company, has made it his mission to appear in a production at each of New Jersey’s theatres. Here, he has no solos in a relatively minor role whose importance to the story only becomes apparent quite late in the proceedings. However, when he sings as part of the ensemble in the finale, Wallnau’s voice sounds smooth, strong, and perfectly pitched. Wallnau, a first rate actor whom I’ve never heard sing before, had me thinking that he would make a fine Tony Esposito (The Most Happy Fella) If my ears have deceived me, give Wallnau all the credit.

Director Peter J. Loewy has done an excellent job in maintaining a fast pace and eliciting excellent performances. However, there are opportunities in the farcical situations for inventive comic business, particularly involving the deceased Uncle Tony, which are not exploited. Taking full advantage of the opportunities which he is given, James Aylward combines superb and supple silent physical comedy with an almost inconceivable discipline in the role. Possibly the lack of scenery may be an inhibiting factor. It is too bad that the budget hasn’t allowed for more than the less than minimal setting provided. There is a four piece orchestra (piano, percussion, bass, synthesizer).

Please bear in mind when you come to see that Lucky Stiff is a small, inconsequential musical farce. I fear that my enthusiasm for what Ahrens and Flaherty accomplished so early in this jewel of a showcase for their talents will raise expectations that this sweet little show and production will not be able to meet. Come for an easy evening of fun and relaxation with a delightful, likeable cast as well as for an introduction to two fine young writers who are destined to deepen their work and make a significant mark in the American musical theatre, and you are not likely to be disappointed.

Lucky Stiff will continue performances (Eves: Fri. & Sat. 8 PM/ Mats: Sun. 3/12 & 26 – 3 PM; Sat. 3/18 & Thurs. 3/23 – 2 PM) through March 26, 2006 at the Forum Theatre Company, 314 Main Street Metuchen, NJ 08840; Box Office: 732-548-0582; online www.forumtheatrecompany.com

Lucky Stiff Book & Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens/ Music by Stephen Flaherty; based on the novel “The Man Who Broke The Bank at Monte Carlo” by Michael Butterworth; directed by Peter J. Loewy

Cast
Uncle Anthony…………...James Aylward
Vinnie Diruzzio…………………...Ed Carlo
Harry Witherspoon………..Brian Childers
Landlady…………….Cari Chrisostomou
Emcee…….James Anthony Fernandes
Bellhop……………………Stuart Landon
Rita Laporta…………………..Karen Leone
Dominique………………...Johanna Lloyd
Annabelle Glick………………Susie Paplow
Luigi Gaudi…………………Carl Wallnau


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


- Bob Rendell



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