Lucky Stiff, a musical comedy directed by Gregory D. Boyd and presented by the Broken Arrow Community Playhouse, showcases an outrageous premise and competent actors who become pitted against some unfortunately stiff staging choices.
But first, the premise. The musical tells the story of a young British shoe salesman, Harry Witherspoon (Ryan Devlin), whose rich uncle bequeaths to his nephew several million dollars upon his death. However, unless Harry fulfills certain criteria described in the will, all that money goes to a charity for homeless dogs. As it turns out, the "certain criteria" is a trip to Monte Carlo... with his uncle's corpse.
Remember Weekend at Bernie's? It's kinda like that. Harry is expected to have a wild spree in Monte Carlo while wheeling around his dead uncle in a wheelchair. To complicate matters further, a representative from the aforementioned charity for canines, Annabel Glick (Meredith Ellis), shows up to make sure that Harry carries out the will to the letter, forcing Harry to take the body on a variety of wild adventures: dancing, SCUBA diving, hang gliding.
I expected more corpse humor in this musical. No, really. Given the premise, I had pumped myself up for a slapstick farce, but the musical turns out to be a romantic comedy with occasional slapstick moments. So the late uncle Anthony Hendon (David Bixler) gets only a few choice gags, which Bixler plays well.
It is, by the way, much harder than it looks to play a corpse. Bixler demonstrates much discipline and commitment to the deceptively challenging role.
Try, Try Again
But if the corpse-based comedy comprises only a small part of the play, what remains? Well, it's a musical, and if you enjoy light musicals you will probably enjoy Lucky Stiff. Devlin has an appealing timbre to his voice. Ellis, as Henry's love interest, has too few songs. Her "Times Like This" is delicate and sweet, the first and second chorus played for gentle laughter, the third for poignant sympathy.
Ellis establishes genuine emotional connections to her on-stage surroundings. Whatever's happening, whoever's there, she's keyed into the moment as it unfolds. It's a pleasure to watch. The kiss that she and Devlin share is one of those rare theatrical kisses that seem spontaneous and romantic.
The music elsewhere in the show is like a sail without wind, although, in "Speaking French," Rebekah Peddy Smith as the singer Dominique lights up her Monte Carlo nightclub. Unfortunately, despite some witty wordplay and one or two memorable songs, it's just not a well-written musical.
Additionally, few of the performers seem as though they've had formal vocal training. Actors in a non-musical can sometimes cheat their way through this difficulty, or have the good fortune to speak "on voice" naturally. When it comes to singing, however, proper breath support is crucial. Without it, there can be little energy or pitch control.
Now, nobody here is awful. But audiences like to know that the actor's in control. We want to sit back and relax, and we don't want to see the effort that has gone into the performance. In Lucky Stiff, we see a lot of effort.
I blame much of the actors' difficulty on Boyd's staging. I criticized the last play I saw in the Broken Arrow Community Playhouse for its interminable set changes, so I understand the space presents certain challenges. However, the stage ought to be a playground for the actor, not an obstacle course. The blocking throughout the play has these actors hemmed in on all sides.
Because the musical shifts locations so often, Boyd has assigned certain scenes to certain areas. The casino floor is on stage left; upstage, a train; a bedroom stage right. All these locations have been partitioned off in order to keep center stage clear. But once each locale has its designated area, there's nothing left to take place at center stage. Even the play's climax has been shunted off to stage right, turning the vast expanse of the stage into dead space.
Similarly, the several blackouts during the second act's chase sequence, meant to cover minor scenery changes, demolish the frenetic comedic rhythm these actors are trying to create.
The space limitations did prod a few creative solutions from the design team. The hang gliding gag is especially entertaining. On the whole, though, the set and blocking in this production are obstacles with which the actors struggle, diffusing the performance's energy.
One final continuity issue. The text states repeatedly that Harry Witherspoon is British. The production even goes so far as to give its British lawyer one of those absurd white curly wigs.
But Devlin has eschewed British dialect and mannerisms. We miss a lot of the script's intended humor there, as Harry is one of those British people for whom etiquette is everything. The conflict between his sense of propriety and his absurd duty to the corpse is one we lack in this production.
Even with these missteps, Lucky Stiff is an enjoyable experience, especially thanks to Smith and Ellis.
Lucky Stiff plays at the Broken Arrow Community Playhouse June 12-15. Call 258-0077 or visit www.bacptheatre.com for more information.
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