2012-06-07 / On the Town

Corpse takes vacation in black comedy

Lucky Stiff
By Cary Ginell


AWKWARD—Harry Witherspoon (John David Wallis) and Annabel Glick (Amanda Wanamaker) get up on the wrong side of the bed in the musical “Lucky Stiff,” playing at the Hillcrest Center through June 17. 
BARBARA MAZEIKA/Special to the Acorn AWKWARD—Harry Witherspoon (John David Wallis) and Annabel Glick (Amanda Wanamaker) get up on the wrong side of the bed in the musical “Lucky Stiff,” playing at the Hillcrest Center through June 17. BARBARA MAZEIKA/Special to the Acorn The musical relationship between composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who began collaborating in the 1980s, lasted longer than that of Rodgers and Hammerstein and most other Broadway teams.

Together, they’ve produced a series of charming musicals, including “Seussical,” “My Favorite Year,” “Once on This Island” and one enduring masterpiece, “Ragtime.”

Panic! Productions, the Thousand Oaks-based community theater company recently formed by Paul Panico and Robert Weibezahl, has put on a sparkling version of one of Ahrens and Flaherty’s earliest shows, “Lucky Stiff,” which brings out the whimsy, charm and amiable goofiness that marks their long-standing friendship.

It plays through June 17 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts.

Music director Diann Alexander had wanted to do the show ever since she saw it performed at the Marquis Dinner Theater in Ventura more than a decade ago.

With most local companies preferring better-known properties, Panico and Weibezahl were looking for something different to produce and took on the show.

The preposterous plot centers on mousey British shoe salesman Harry Witherspoon (John Davis Wallis), who’s been bequeathed a fortune by his deceased Uncle Anthony, a shady Atlantic City casino manager who was recently murdered.

Anthony’s will stipulates that, to secure his inheritance, Harry must take his uncle’s corpse on a prepaid, freewheeling holiday to Monte Carlo, with a litany of specific requirements added on for good measure. If all the details aren’t followed to the letter, the entire fortune would go to the Universal Dog Home in Brooklyn, Anthony’s favorite charity.

To make sure Harry does what he’s supposed to do, the dog home’s representative, Annabel Glick (Amanda Wanamaker), shadows his every move.

Director Celeste Russi has assembled a stellar cast of local character actors that is solid from the leads to the versatile members of the ensemble.

Wallis is perfect as Harry, playing him as a likable chap without appearing greedy or opportunistic at his impending wealth.

Nineteen-year-old Wanamaker, a student at Moorpark College, plays Annabel with a winning sensitivity. Like Harry, Annabel doesn’t let the prospect of wealth corrupt her innate goodness.

For me, the highlight of the production is Wanamaker’s solo, “Times Like This,” a sonnet to dog lovers that is the show’s closest thing to a love song. None of the songs in “Lucky Stiff” have the majesty that imbues every song in “Ragtime,” but “Times Like This” is a glistening gem that stands alongside other wistful, understated moments in musical history, such as Sondheim’s “Little Lamb” in “Gypsy.”

Renee Scott is brilliantly funny as Anthony’s mistress, Rita, whose nearsightedness resulted in her shooting Anthony in the first place.

Weibezahl’s portrayal of Rita’s skittish optometrist brother, Vinnie, shows a side of his dramatic talents we rarely see—as a first-rate comedian.

The universally excellent ensemble includes Panico as a mys ter ious Italian tour guide, Ashley Whiting as a delectably decadent dancer, Dale Alpert (employing a variety of accents), plus Tamarah Ashton- Coombs, Alexandra Gonzales and Kurt Kemper.

The toughest job, however, went to Jim Diderrich as the corpse of Uncle Anthony. Despite being forced to sit motionless in a wheelchair throughout the entire show, not a twitch can be seen from Diderrich, whose portrayal is a masterpiece in underplaying.

Jeff Gibson provides exemplary accompaniment on the piano.

The show is co-produced by Weibezahl and Panico, with assistance from Theresa Secor.

It is a disservice to call “Lucky Stiff” merely a knockabout black comedy. Russi has taken its dizzy characters and extracted their inner sweetness, making the show much more than just another madcap farce. “Lucky Stiff” is a sure bet.

“Lucky Stiff” plays through June 17 at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts. For tickets, visit www.HillcrestArts.com or call (805) 381-1246.

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