THEATER REVIEW: With fun balance overdrawn, cast, music revive ‘Stiff’

“Lucky Stiff” / The Theater Barn

Cast members in the The Theater Barn production of ‘Lucky Stiff’ are (l to r) Mark Shane-Lydon, Joseph Sicotte (in the title role) and Nicole Weitzman. The production runs through September 1 at the New Lebanon stage. Photo contributed

“LUCKY STIFF” IS A MUSICAL FARCE about a man who takes a corpse for a weekend in Monte Carlo. Murder, dogs, romance and a six-million dollar inheritance are involved.

At the Theater Barn, director Robert Schneider has chosen to emphasize a gathering-of-clowns approach to the story. I’ve seen and preferred less stylized concepts applied to “Lucky Stiff,” but it’s a choice, and his staging is clean, clear and consistent.

Set designer Sam Slack has followed suit, giving the set a lively carnival feel rather than the lush look of Monte Carlo. There are giant betting chips, giant tinsel walls, and giant face cards adorned with—yes, royal dogs.

The material the cast has to work with should be funny, right? (Dogs, murder, etc.) But the Theater Barn actors seem to have sensed an under-funnied script and perhaps under-funnied lyrics–and decided they must try to make up for the lack by over-energizing almost everything.

The two romantic leads (Apryl Higgins as Annabel and Matthew Ruehlman as Harry) mostly resist the temptation, and they get to sing one of the little gems of musical theater song-writing. It’s called “Nice.” The song is one of those rare, unpretentious creations whose chord progressions, phrasing, words and duet-writing are deceptively simple, honest and utterly unimprovable. It’s a Stephen Flaherty (composer)-Lynn Ahrens (lyricist) royal flush.

This is an attractive score attached to a so-so book. Up-tempo numbers are abundant, which makes even a near-ballad very welcome when it appears. The music is served up by the Barn’s three-person orchestra (piano, percussion and synthesizer). Piano (by musical director Kevin Wallace) leads authoritatively, and synthesized instruments add variety, including one especially effective celeste accompaniment. A bit more harmonic padding from the synth would be welcome.

Apryl Higgins and Samantha Streich are in the The Theater Barn production of ‘Lucky Stiff’ at the stage in New Lebanon. The production runs through September 1. Photo contributed 

All the women in this cast practice the URI (upper respiratory infection) school of vocal technique. From the larynx of a Barbara Streisand or a Sutton Foster it can be expressive and wonderful. From lesser larynxes, songs laced with URI plus questionable pitches can sound like shouting. Because of her keen ear for lyrics, Higgins makes the mode function okay for her character. Nicole Weitzman in the kooky role of Rita, not so much. Matthew Ruehlman‘s pleasant high baritone is right for Harry Witherspoon, and ensemble numbers are very well sung by this cast.

In “Lucky Stiff,” the Corpse is a major role. Joseph Sicette kept drawing my eyes to his remarkable stillness. (It must be fun for an actor to have a major corpse-role on his resume. And what labors he must have endured–digging for the character’s “motivation” and the author’s deep, deep subtext!)

Murder mysteries often have that late scene in which somebody appears and ties up all the plot’s loose ends. Those scenes are sometimes tedious. Actor Mark Schane-Lydon is in charge of the one in “Lucky Stiff,” and fortunately nothing Mark (Monk) Schane-Lydon dominates is tedious!

The show runs through September 1. For tickets, access or call 518-794-8989.

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