Sunday, June 9, 2013

REVIEW: MAYHEM ROCKS THE HOUSE IN 4TH WALL’S “LUCKY STIFF”

Ruth head shotBy Ruth Ross

Until about 2008, when they changed their name to 4th Wall Theatre, the company known for "theater on the edge" was called 4th Wall Musical Theatre. Well, without forsaking straight plays, the 4th Wall folks have returned to their musical roots with a charmingly wicked production of Lucky Stiff, a musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, a songwriting team best known for Ragtime, Once on This Island and Seussical.

Bearing a passing resemblance to Dinner with Bernie and Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels, Lucky Stiff tells the tale of Harry Witherspoon, a nebbishy shoe salesman who finds his humdrum London existence—complete with nosy landlady and her vicious dog—upended by a telegram reporting the death of his unknown American uncle Anthony Hendin—a casino manager in Atlantic City—who has left him $6 million on the condition that he take the corpse to Monte Carlo for a final fling before committing it to the ground. There is a catch, however: if Harry fails to carry out one iota of the will's detailed directions, the money will go to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn, one of his uncle's "pet" charities. Harry is moved to go along with this wacky scheme because he longs for a bit of adventure and, most importantly, he hates dogs!

Of course, in a zany plot like this, the path to the money is not without potholes. Harry is pursued by his uncle's mistress, Rita LaPorte, who with her lover has embezzled the $6 million from her husband's casino; her brother, optometrist Vinnie DiRizzo, upon whom she has pinned the crime; and one Annabel Glick, representative of the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn, who is just itching to catch Harry tripping up on fulfilling the terms of the will so she can use the money to save "25,000 starving dogs," among other mistreated canines.

With so much going on, a strong director's hand is needed to keep the action humming and, in this case, the zaniness at top pitch; Josh Penzell, with a slew of theater credits to his name, is just the man for the task. Actors move on and off stage with energy (even the dead man in the wheelchair makes it to his spots on time), and scene changes occur unobtrusively, yet skillfully. Markus Hauck is to be commended for his musical direction of Lucky Stiff's complex score, conducting a four-piece ensemble cunningly hidden onstage by a screen.

Penzell's cast is absolutely terrific. Three of the principals are making their 4th Wall debut; note: keep them in mind for other shows! The others are returning pro's; it is fun to see them take on new roles.

As Harry Witherspoon, the "lucky" guy of the title, Robert Rice (right, in photo left) is a quivering, nerdy guy, afraid of his own shadow, especially when squiring the embalmed corpse of his Uncle Anthony (the "stiff" of the title) around Monte Carlo as they gamble in the casinos, visit a museum, even go parasailing and scuba diving, just as his uncle dreamed of doing. Of course, as Harry is exposed to these activities so different from taking inventory at the shoe store, he grows in psychological stature and even appears to pull his slender physique up to its full height. It sure helps that Rice has great stage presence (he appears in almost every scene) and an excellent voice.

His nemesis, Annabel, is played by Chelsea Stavis (above, left) as a hard, scheming young woman who is determined to catch Harry in a slip-up. She too has a lovely voice, especially as she extols the virtues of owning a dog (at "Times Like This") and performs a sweet duet with Harry ("Nice") wherein she admits she's had fun chasing him and acknowledging that she feels more for him than as an adversary.

Maggie Letsche (right) brings down the house as the determined Rita, bullying her brother, decrying the loss of her lover and single-minded about retrieving the heart-shaped box holding the embezzled funds. Letsche's grand comedic timing and enveloping stage presence as she assumes all sorts of disguises makes for great fun. And her plus-size voice really puts a song across in a manner true to her character.

Providing more female comedy is Kate Hoover (left) as the French chanteuse Dominique Du Monaco, who performs a hilarious production number about the merits of "Speaking French"; she wrings great fun out of the stereotype of French sexiness, especially when extending a beautiful leg for all to see and admire. Ooh, la la!

Tom Schopper is a very funny Dr. Vinnie  (above, right with Letsche), implicated by his pushy sister as a thief and struggling to evade the "hit" her husband has ordered on him. Jordan Gulick and Brian James Grace provide more than adequate support; the former is especially funny as a Monte Carlo lounge lizard and bell boy (although not at the same time). Julie Galorenzo brings down the house as Harry's nosy landlady, a drunken laundry maid and a tourist, and Jason Tamashausky uses a spot-on Mafioso-like Italian accent to portray Luigi Gaudi, concierge and gangster. But kudos go to Nelson Valentin (above, right, with Rice) as the corpse of Anthony Hendin, Harry's uncle. He manages to be very entertaining without ever saying a word or moving even a finger!

Evan Hill's spare set does duty as a shoe store, an optometrist's office and various sites in Monte Carlo with just a turn of four revolving columns and the addition of a couple of portable backdrops. Janice Schopper's terrific costumes telegraph time, space and character at a glance; Rob Lavagno's props add to the ambiance. Joe DeVico's sound and Nicholas Marmo's lighting complete the effect.

Ahrens and Flaherty are known for interesting melodies and clever rhymes, and Lucky Stiff does not disappoint. This production is pure fun—over the top, to be sure—but you will find yourself laughing all the way home.

Lucky Stiff will be performed at the Westminster Arts Center, 449 Franklin Street, Bloomfield (on the campus of Bloomfield College and a few minutes from Exit 148 of the Garden State Parkway) through June 22, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sunday, June 16, at 2 PM. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.748.9000 ext. 1279 or visit online at www.4thwalltheatre.org.