Arts Listings

Contra Costa Theatre Plays Winning Hand With ‘Lucky Stiff’

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Wednesday November 25, 2009 - 08:59:00 AM

Wheeling your decrepit uncle from Atlantic City through Monte Carlo for one last fling, no matter how venal the motive (like garnering an inheritance in seven figures that will otherwise—literally—go to the dogs) is one thing. But if it’s your never-before-met old uncle, a Jersey gangster —your never-before-met late Jersey gangster uncle —in that wheelchair, rolling around for a week in the clubs and casinos ... 

What you have then is Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ 1988 musical comedy, Lucky Stiff, now playing to appreciative—guffawing, even—audiences at Contra Costa Civic Theater. 

With Amy Nielson’s stage direction and Sierra Dee leading the trio onstage from the keyboard (with Ted Gould, bass; Poh Soon Teng, drums and percussion), the cast of 12 puts on a tight, not to say constricted, show. As is appropriate to this style of parody—or burlesque—musical, it’s the little things that count, and that’s what the show aims for. 

John Brown and Sharon Rietnick, a bright new face, are just right as the unlikely romantic leads: an English former shoe salesman, worried by the dogs in his London rooming house, and Annabel Glick of the Universal Dog Home, shadowing him to make sure he keeps his uncle’s wishes to the letter (or he’ll forfeit a few mil to the hounds). 

But there are others, maybe with only a moment of the audience’s undivided attention: Steve Yates as Luigi Gaudi, who tries to force himself on shoe salesman-“caregiver” Harry as a guide, who all but stops the show with a “confession” that borders on pure exposition; or Brian Dauglash, who paddles vigorously in the waters of a Monte Carlo nightclub as a comic emcee; or Kerry Chapman as Rita, purblind mistress to Uncle Anthony, packing the pistol she nearsightedly shot the old gang- 

ster with, all the way to Monte Carlo  

to claim the inherited loot. Or Eric Neiman as Vinnie, Rita’s optometrist brother, unwittingly along for the ride. Or Joe Fitzgerald in the most deadpan role ever ...  

Whether as principals, characters appearing for a moment to supply color, or all together as ensemble, it’s a sharp troupe onstage, gliding through one set-up after another, Eugene De Christopher’s set, Adam Fry’s lighting and Travis Rexroat’s sound design underpinning the fluidity. The costumes by Jenine Hillaire, with the director’s collaboration, are occasionally jokes by themselves, not just props for the same. 

Well into the action, Harry has a dream, a nightmare-become-production number, “Welcome Back, Mr. Witherspoon,” in which all the people in his life appear, snouted and muzzled like dogs—the dogs he hates, from his rooming house. 

Less penetrating are the moments when Harry is winning, for the first time in his life, at the tables, with his uncle’s roulette system. Or drinking champagne, arms locked with Dominique, the chanteuse, who sings “And now you’re speaking French.” 

Lucky Stiff can be a very funny romp, and the CCCT folks—all of them, onstage and off—do their best to carry you with them onto the playing fields of a contemporary burlesque of musical comedy, one which reaffirms the norm at its best with funny, exuberant action.  

No wonder the lyric it ends on: “It’s good to be alive!” 

Lucky Stiff 

Presented by Contra Costa Civic Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday–Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 6 at 951 Pomona Ave., El Cerrito. $11–$18.