By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Broadway Rose’s current show, Lucky Stiff, is the first product of a highly successful collaboration between lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (Once on This Island, Ragtime, Seussical). It is an absurdist murder farce – sort of “comedy of errors” meets “Dashiell Hammett” – but with lots of singing and a fair amount of dancing. Luckily for the audience, Broadway Rose never does anything by half-measures, and the quality of this production transforms what could be two hours of formulaic fluff into a great evening of entertainment.
The story itself is predictably convoluted and nonsensical. Harry Witherspoon, a downtrodden, dog-hating British shoe salesman, inherits six million dollars from his long-lost American uncle, Tony Hendon – but there are strings attached. In order to claim his inheritance, Harry must treat Uncle Tony’s embalmed corpse to a weeklong vacation in Monte Carlo – gambling, sky- and scuba-diving, the works! Should Harry fail, Uncle Tony’s millions will go to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn. Harry’s efforts to fulfill Uncle Tony’s wishes are countered by the machinations of Tony’s lover, Rita LaPorta, and by Universal Dog Rescuer Annabel Glick. Suffice it to say that things get complicated.
Robert Winstead brings his extensive experience as a vocalist and a comic to the role of Harry Witherspoon. His English accent is convincing, and his marvelously expressive face clearly conveys both the pathos and the determination of his character. Winstead sings on more than half of the show’s songs, and his solid vocal performance buttresses several fine ensemble numbers. His duets with the lovely soprano Ecaterina Lynn (“Annabel Glick”) are especially effective - comic or poignant as the story demands. Lynn’s earnest, dog-loving fanaticism is a perfect foil for Winstead’s befuddlement, and the two share many of Lucky Stiff’s funniest moments – especially in the brilliantly staged bedroom/dream sequence.
Amy Jo Halliday brings a frenetic bimboism to the part of Rita LaPorta, Uncle Tony’s extraordinarily classless half-blind lover (she refuses to wear her glasses) and accidental murderer. Her over-the-top character is matched by the power of her brassy vocals, and she knows just how far she can push the role. David Smidebush displays remarkable physical fluidity throughout; his spectacular tap dancing helps to make “Harry’s Nightmare,” a captivating bit of stage magic and choreography, the high point of the show.
Other noteworthy performances include Darren Hurley’s turn as the lounge-lizard/maître d’hotel/singing nun/Arab and Catherine Bridge’s portrayal of Dominique, part b-girl, part Spanish dancer, all femme fatale. The ensemble, as expected with any Broadway Rose production, is flawless. Music director/conductor/pianist Alan D. Lytle once again brings vocal and instrumental magic to the New Stage.
Director/choreographer Dan Murphy presents what may be the cleverest staging of any show we have seen in recent years. In addition to the above-mentioned bedroom/dream sequence, the series of vignettes showing Witherspoon, Uncle Tony, and Annabel parachuting, scuba diving, and fishing their way across the stage keeps the audience in stitches. Lucky Stiff may not be terribly profound, but this production provides high quality musical theater and immerses its audience in an evening of beguiling entertainment.
Lucky Stiff is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through October 13th.