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Little-known musical ‘Lucky Stiff’ comes alive with comedic bits

Emily Quigley,

The team of writer/lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty have together produced some classics of musical theater over the past three decades, including shows such as “Ragtime,” “Once on this Island” and the current Broadway production of “Anastasia.” Their first collaboration, though, came in 1988, in the form of an off-Broadway adaptation of Michael Butterworth’s 1983 novel “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.”

That musical, “Lucky Stiff,” never reached the same heights of success as the duo’s later works, and it’s easy to see why. It is a very light, zany romp that’s lacking in depth and abounding with clichés. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be quite fun, as proved by Austin Playhouse’s new production of the overlooked musical.

“Lucky Stiff” tells the story of an uptight English shoe salesman named Harry Witherspoon who is given a life-changing opportunity when he stands to inherit $6 million from his recently deceased uncle. All he has to do to obtain his inheritance is take his uncle’s taxidermied corpse on the vacation of a lifetime to Monte Carlo. He encounters a series of wacky, outlandish people along the way, most notably a woman named Annabel Glick who represents the charity that stands to inherit the money should he fail to scrupulously follow the terms of his uncle’s will.

As the founder of Doctuh Mistuh productions, which specializes in strange and unique musicals, director/musical director Michael McKelvey is the perfect fit for “Lucky Stiff.” Though some of the comedy of the text is more than a little aged, and none of the songs are particularly memorable, the delightful flourishes of clever staging, quiet visual gags and tiny character bits are what make this production come to life. It is, in short, a very good production of a fun-but-corny musical that features plenty of verve and charm.

The production is at its most charming in the moments of interaction between Witherspoon and Glick, played by Scott Shipman and Molly Karrasch, respectively. Both actors are relatively subdued and unassuming, particularly in comparison to the enjoyable extremes to which the rest of the cast go. The developing relationship between them is sold far more by the performances than by the text, providing an emotional core to what can at times feel like a somewhat directionless procession of comedic bits.

Those comedic bits, though, can be very funny, indeed. The entire cast fully commits to the world of the play with a reckless abandon that makes each moment a delight, even if the whole is lesser than the sum of those moments. Of particular note are the background shenanigans of Chase Brewer, Jess Hughes, Stephen Mercantel and Bernadette Nason (who each take on a variety of ever-shifting side characters), as well as Jerreme Rodriguez’s nebbishy, Jerry Lewis-like take on Vincent di Ruzzio, a bedraggled optometrist pulled into a wacky caper by his insensitive sister.

Although there’s a reason that “Lucky Stiff” is something of a forgotten musical, Austin Playhouse’s production is still a great deal of escapist fun with plenty of laughs, charm and life.

“Lucky Stiff”

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through June 24

Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.

Cost: $17-$40