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Lucky Stiff

Theatre Review by Rob Lester - May 6, 2024

Missy Dowse and Patrick Brady
Photo by Russ Rowland
Maybe the musical Lucky Stiff wasn't enormously lucky the first time around, managing only 15 performances in its 1988 Off-Broadway debut, but it has continued to pop up over the years around the country, had a film version a decade ago, and is now in good hands at J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company. To quote a lyric from another show they revived (Seesaw, in 2020), "It's not where you start, it's where you finish."

The race to its current finish had a head start. It's not the first time J2's Robert W. Schneider has directed the show, having done so for a production in the Berkshires a few years ago, and its creators–lyricist /bookwriter Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty–have been involved here, with input on casting and tweaks to what was the first produced work of the long-together collaborators. Now intermissionless, the frothy fun of this farce whizzes by at just the right speed and the songs are lively, accompanied deftly (behind the set) by a three-piece band of pianist/music director Miles Plant, bassist Sean Decker and drummer Amanda Lee Morrill. Words ring out loud and clear without the use of microphones.

Based on the novel "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" by Michael Butterworth, the story is set mainly in that location. Shoe salesman Harry is told that an uncle he never met has died and left a will that will grant him six million dollars on the condition that Harry travel with his embalmed body (in a wheelchair), pass him off as alive and involved in activities, and must arrive at specified places at dictated times, down to the minute. Failing this, the money will go to a charity for dogs. Eager to get their hands on the inheritance, an employee of that charity, Anabel, and the uncle's ex-lover Rita and her brother Vinnie follow him. And, of course, mayhem follows, too.

The cast fully and fondly embrace the wackiness without winking at it or pushing it too far over the top to be exhausting. Audiences willing to surrender to silliness will find many moments of lunacy to laugh at. Although I know the show from seeing a past production and the film and through two cast recordings, the comedy's zing hit me all over again, thanks to the actors' terrific timing and razor-sharp reactions. That being said, I otherwise might have been a bit confused at times by a few minor incidents, especially with actors playing multiple roles in quick succession. Projections on a screen well above the top of the proscenium help identify locations. Along bright turquoise walls, the stage is dominated by a few readily slammable doors, used effectively for frantic comings and goings: de rigueur in a farce. (Set design: Matthew Imhoff)

On a likable portrayal, Patrick Brady is a more than suitably harried Harry, who seems increasingly comfortable with the bizarre situations. The animosity–and later, attraction–between Harry and Annabel (Missy Dowse) could be a little sharper to raise the stakes and tension. However, their duet, "Nice," achieves much in showing their melting resistance. Dowse plays Annabel with lower-key sensitivity and warmth, a lovely counterpoint to the broader comedy around her, and her solo, "Times Like This," is sweetly affecting. She has a lovely singing voice; otherwise, pretty sounds are not the priority for this score. It mostly needs character voices–rambunctious, belty, and grand. It gets them here.

The actors playing the manic siblings, trigger-happy Rita (Janine LaManna) and hapless, panicky Vinnie (Robert Anthony Jones), deliver major comic portrayals. Their early scene, with the song "Rita's Confession," is especially a hoot as she drops the bombshell fact that she has implicated him in her crime, along with the P.S. that they might be able to get the six million. He uses facial expressions of shock, horror, worry, dismay, and reluctant agreement in some resourceful clowning.

Gleefully dashing in the role of the gregarious fellow introducing himself as Luigi, a willing guide and bon vivant, is Eric Michael Gillett, who was also a major asset to the company's April show, Do Re Mi (and will be on the roster of singers at J2's cabaret night of other Ahrens & Flaherty songs on May 7).

A tight ensemble working like the proverbial well-oiled machine is crucial for a farce to work with panache. Anania Williams is just campy enough as a series of characters, chewing what little scenery there is as a chanteuse in "Speaking French." Also doing well in a variety of roles, sometimes with lightning-swift changes, are Quinn Corcoran, Marisa Budnick, and the especially versatile Richard Rowan (master of mischievous madcap and a Cheshire Cat grin). Last but not least, kudos to Alexander Carney with the unenviable task of being a fully visible dead man on display for long stretches of time. (He does occasionally get to drop a hand or his head and kicks up his heels in a dream sequence that has the potential to be wilder.) With the corpse in view through much of the action, the extra relevance of the prominent number "Good to Be Alive" does not go unnoticed.

Director Schneider keeps things moving at a satisfying swift pace but lets us relax into some key moments of sweetness and would-be romance.

Lucky Stiff
Through May 12, 2024
The J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company
AMT Theater, 354 West 45 Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: