Going to the Dogs | “Lucky Stiff” @ Actors Co-Op

Lucky Stiff (Actors Co-Op)Actors often keep track of their Broadway Debuts — the first time they were on a Broadway stage. But how much does an actor’s first show represent where they will be going in their career. The answer is: often not much. Unless they get that starring role from the get-go, there are often years of hard ensemble, swing, and understudy roles before the true talent shines through. For every Bebe Neuwirth at the top in Chicago, there’s the same actress in a background role in Sweet Charity.

What about composing teams? How much does their first show say about where they will be going? One can’t say for Rodgers and Hammerstein — they each worked with other composers before their first show, Oklahoma. For Kander and Ebb, did Flora: The Red Menace indicate where they would eventually go? Did Godspell fortell Wicked for Stephen Schwartz? How representative was Saturday Night for Sondheim? Parade for Jerry Herman?

When we look at the key new composing teams from the 1980s, one of the best is Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. They’ve given us such great shows as RagtimeOnce on this IslandSeussical, and Anastasia. Their first produced show was a farcical murder mystery, Lucky Stiff (a production of which recently opened at  Actors Co-op (FB) in Hollywood), based on “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” written by Michael Butterworth. The plot is, well, a farce. A hapless shoe salesman (Harry Witherspoon) in England inherits $6 million from his gambler uncle (Tony Hendon) in New Jersey, who he has never met. There’s one condition: he take the corpse on one last vacation to Monte Carlo. If he doesn’t do this, the $6 million will go to the Universal Dog Home in Brooklyn (and Harry hates dogs).  Meanwhile, in Atlantic City, Tony’s lover Rita LaPorta, who shot Tony because she thought he was cheating on him, convinces her dentist brother, Vincent DiRuzzo to go to Monte Carlo with him to get back the $6 million, which she and Tony embezzled from Rita’s gambler husband, to whom she confessed that it was her brother that stole the money and then lost it gambling (and thus, the husband has a contract out on Vinnie). Lastly, the Universal Dog House is watching everything though a field representative, Annabel Glick, because if Tony doesn’t fulfill the terms of the letter, the money goes to them.

That, mind you, is the set up. This is a farce so there is plenty of mistaken identities, doors slamming, distractions, but there’s not a single sardines. There is, however, the requisite character who is blind but for her glasses, which she refuses to wear, a drunken maid, nuns, and Arab sheiks.

However, the focus of this opening treatise is whether this silly fluff of a show was predictive of the team that would give us Ragtime and Once on this Island, Seussical and Man of No Importance, My Favorite Year and Anastasia. I think the answer is … yes. Although a number of songs are silly, there are glimpses of the greatness to come. Especially in numbers like “Times Like This” and “Nice”, the team’s ability to tell tender ballads is fortold. The opening number “Something Funny’s Going On” as well as “Him, Them, It, Her” shows the ability to construct humorous multipart choral numbers. So although the story is a silly farce, it does show the genius yet to come.

Now, as farces go, this is not a tightly crafted as, say, Noises Off. It calls for overacting at times, it creates absurd situations, and has some truly bad lines reflective of the times (“she don’t just can-can, she will-will”). It requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. But it is also very funny, and I think most people will find laugh-out-loud humor in the story. If not, well they will at least appreciate some of the songs.

Lucky Stiff Prodction PhotosIn many ways, the success of a farce depends on the execution of the story. Split second timing, a willingness to go overboard when appropriate, and the ability to play for the joke is critical. For a musical farce, you need to be able to handle the music and choreography as well, which is also tightly timed. Director Stephen Van Dorn (FB) and Choreographer Julie Hall (FB) lead the cast reasonably well in this regard. The movement coordination during the second act chase (“Him, Them, It, Her”) works very well, and the players handle the farcical aspects pretty well (although, at times, they overplay it too much).

In the lead couple positions were Brandon Parrish (FB) as Harry Witherspoon, and Claire Adams (FB) as Annabel Glick. Parrish, who has to be the straight man to much of the humor and craziness going around him, handles the situations with aplomb. He also sings quite well (a side we didn’t see in 33 Variations). Adams, who we last saw as Hero’s target of adoration in Cabrillo’s Forum, handled the humor here as well. She also did a great job with one of my favorite songs in this show, “Times Like These”.

The protagonist … make that catalyst … for this story, Anthony Hendon, is played by Vito Viscuso (FB). I must say that his performance was a bit stiff. (pause for effect) Now that we are past that joke, seriously, Viscuso handled the part of a corpse very well, really only standing and dancing in one number. This is not an indictment of his acting, however, as we saw him in the previous production at Actors Co-Op, Cats Paw, where he was spectacular.

Our comedic second couple, Tony’s lover Rita LaPorta and her brother, Dr. Vincent DiRuzzio, were portrayed by Rory Patterson (FB) and Brian Habicht (FB), respectively. Patterson threw herself in the role wholecloth, playing it broadly for the humor and handling her comic numbers quite well (looking back, almost all of her numbers are comic numbers). Habicht also handled the humor quite well, especially in “The Phone Call” (his call back to his wife) and the closing scenes.

The remaining sole actor named role was David Atkinson (FB)’s Luigi Gaudi, who is a person Harry first meets on the train, and then keeps running into. He plays this well for the comedy.

Rounding out the cast are an ensemble of four, who handle multiple characters each (and are thus credited as Woman 1 and 2, and Man 1 and 2). These versatile players are: Gina D’Acciaro (FB) [Woman 1: Landlady, Miss Thorsby, Nurse, Southern Lady #1, Dancing Portrait, Drunken Maid], Alastair James Murden (FB) [Man 1: Surly Lorry Driver, Solicitor, Prosperous Man on Train, Clothing Salesman, French Emcee, Croupier, Nun, Old Texan]; Selah Victor (FB) [Woman 2: Dominique du Monaco, Spinster, Southern Lady #2, Dancing Roulette Wheel]; and Jose Villarreal (FB) [Man 2: Offstage Telegram Deliverer, Vicious Punk, Mr Loomis the Eye Patient, French Waiter on Train, Stationmaster’s Voice, Bellhop, French Waiter in Club, Dapper Gambler, Leper]. Note that one of our two programs had a slip that the Woman 2’s roles were being split between choreographer Julie Hall (FB) [Spinster, Southern Lady] and producer Catherine Gray (FB) [Dominique], but I don’t know if that applied to our performance. D’Acciaro did a wonderfully over-the-top performance as the requisite drunken maid, and Murden stood out as the emcee. I’m not sure who was playing Dominique (who gets the number “Speaking French”), but whoever did it at our performance handled it quite well, including the intentional overplay on the acting.

Music was under the direction of Taylor Stephenson who was also playing the keyboards behind the scenery (and who we have heard and seen at numerous Chance shows). Joining him were Malila Hollow (FB), also on keyboards and synthesizer, Nic Gonzales/FB on bass, and Jorge Zuniga (FB) on drums.

Finally, turning to the creative and production side: The scenic design by Lex Gernon (FB) worked reasonably well, although there was no good explanation about why the door to #5 was upside down (which was oddly distracting). However, the parachute made up for it. The scenic design was supported by Nicholas Acciani (FB)’s properties, which for the most part worked well. The lighting design by Lisa D. Katz (FB) served to define the mood appropriately and direct attention. On the other hand,  Warren Davis (FB)’s — or the execution thereof — had some problems at our performance, with mics cutting in and out and odd static at times. Vicki Conrad (FB)’s costume design worked well, although some (going with the theme) were a bit on the stereotypical side.  Hair and makeup was by Krys Fehervari (FB). Remining production credits: E. K. Dagenfield (FB) – Dialect Coach; Leticia Gonzalez (FB) – Stage Manager;  James Ledesma (FB) and Derek Copenhaver (FB) – Assistant Stage Managers; Heather Chesley (FB) – Artistic Chairperson, David Elzer/Demand PR (FB) – Publicity; Selah Victor (FB) – Production Manager, and Catherine Gray (FB) – Producer.

Lucky Stiff continues at Actors Co-op (FB) through June 18. Tickets are available through Actors Co-Op; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. Actor’s Co-Op has announced their summer Actors Co-Op Too! season as well as their 2017-2018 season. I’ve written up my thoughts on their season here; in short – subscribe!

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: May concludes with a production from Write Act Rep (FB) at their new home in North Hollywood, Freeway Dreams, followed by Hello Again at the Chromolume Theatre (FB) [plus my wife is off to the Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Festival (FB) on Sunday, as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is playing, while I work on the highway pages].

As for June? Three words: Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). This is the current planned schedule for HFF. Not all is ticketed — we are ticketing in two groups: this weekend (¹), and right after June 1st (²), to split the charges. To see the full Fringe guide, click here.

With respect to the Hollywood Fringe Festival: I’d like to recommend Hello Again, The Songs of Allan Sherman. Linden, the artist, did the show for our synagogue Mens Club back in October, and it was a delight. So good, in fact, that we’re going to see the show again during Fringe. If you want a fun show full of parody music, see this one.

July brings us back to normal theatre (° = pending confirmation). We start with The Voysey Inheritance at Actors Co-op (FB) the first weekend. The second weekend is currently open, but we’re thinking about Animal Farm at Theatricum Botanicum (FB). The third weekend brings Peter Pan at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) and Ruthie and Me at  Actors Co-op (FB). The fourth weekend of July has a hold for Motown/Miracle | Harlem/Renaissance from Muse/ique (FB). The last weekend of July brings The Last 5 Years at Actors Co-op (FB).  August will (hopefully) start with Brian Setzer° at the Hollywood Bowl (FB) on August 2, followed by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on the weekend. We may also squeeze in On The Twentieth Century at the Pan-Andreas Theatre in Hollywood from Proof Doubt Closer (FB), as a friend is in the cast. The second weekend of August? What made sitting through The Bodyguard worth it: Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). I’m still scheduling September, but so far we have The 39 Steps° at Actors Co-op (FB) and Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB). There’s also the Men of TAS Golf Tournament, if any theatre company reading this wants to donate tickets to our silent auction (hint, hint). More as the schedule fleshes out, of course, but we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018 already!

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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