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Lucky Stiff

“Lucky Stiff,” a mapcap musical penned by the Tony-award winning creators of “Ragtime,” “Seussical” and “Once Upon an Island” is about a $6 million estate that may go to the dogs. Or will it?

If you expect—as I did—to see a dog on stage, you’re barking up the wrong tree. But no matter. You find chuckles galore, hilarity in wacky characters and visual gags to give you “paws” to return -- enough that even my theater-fed husband/actor Gordon wants to see this offbeat production again.

Running through June 17, the energy-filled farce “Lucky Stiff” is directed by veteran Celeste Russi, with musical direction by dynamo Diann Alexander. At the hilltop Hillcrest Center for the Arts (across from The Oaks Mall and JCPenney) in Thousand Oaks.

“Lucky Stiff” is a lunatic murder mystery, book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, based on “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” by Michael Butterworth. The first musical by Ahern and Flaherty ran off-Broadway in 1988 and while well-reviewed only ran for 15 performances. said Russi. Theater critics noted that at the time musicals garnering audiences were lavish, big-budget productions. In contrast, “Lucky Stiff” has a six-man, five-woman cast, “all very talented,” says director Russi.

Scenes jump from Atlantic City, New Jersey. English boarding houses and European trains. Monte Carlo. The rapid-paced script relates the tale of Harry Witherspoon, trapped by his own timidity in a lackluster life selling expensive shoes and too many days without a single sale. Friday night inventory brings Harry’s lament, as he sings, “… Endless nights of stew, and I’m talking to a shoe.” At night there’s no respite since the cheap boarding house he lives in is crammed with misfits who feel entitled to intercept an exciting piece of mail to Harry; they feel entitled to steam open the telegram, justifying the misdeed with “why would someone send a telegram to a nincompoop like that?”

The telegram is from a solicitor’s office. There, Harry learns the “Uncle Anthony” he never met leaves him $6 million. But, to claim the inheritance, Harry must accompany the embalmed body of his murdered uncle (an Atlantic City croupier) on a week-long paid vacation to Monte Carlo – or it will literally go to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn. Harry is joined in the cast of eccentric, sometimes unsavory characters who descend on Monte Carlo to swipe the loot. Harry wins if he succeeds in passing off his uncle as alive.

Change is inevitable, even in Harry, who you’ll hear eventually singing, “I had a job, I had a flat. Life wasn’t much but I knew what to expect.”

Leads set the bar high. John David Wallis of Glendale interprets Harry as sensitive, honest and forced by unanticipated circumstance--including fear--to confront previously-elusive self-discovery.  Newbury Park resident, the beautiful Amanda Wanamaker, 19, is Annabel Glick, the dog orphanage representative, who stalks Harry, waiting for him to deviate from the dead uncle’s taped instructions; if he does, she’ll have legal grounds to nab the treasure. So naïve, she’s never partaken of “Dom Pregnon.”  

It’s hard to top Renee Scott’s conversion into the legally blind dame Rita LaPorta, who because she wasn’t wearing her glasses accidently murdered her lover; he turns out to be the late “Uncle Tony.” The narcissistic Rita is scared she’ll face her casino-owner husband will find out she and Tony, her husband’s chief croupier, embezzled that $6 million in diamonds. She implicates her brother Vinnie DiRuzzio, an optometrist, in her schemes

Simply unequalled is comic Robert Weibezahl as the hapless brother dodging a hit from her sister’s mobster husband. Visited by Rita who spills the beans about her misadventures and untruths, the shocked optometrist drags Rita off to Monte Carlo to find and return the $6 million.

Also keep your eyes and ears peeled for the knockout Ashley Whiting (mother on bus, Ms. Thorsby and Dominique du Monaco). As the latter character, the pre-paid sexy French chanteuse slinks and slides for Harry.

You absolutely must watch for Alexandra Gonzales, who plays the landlady, nurse, Southern lady but best of all. the drunken maid who mistakes The Corpse in a Wheelchair covered with a sheet (yep) for her Cleaning/Laundry Cart.

There’s more in the effective ensemble. Dale Alpert of Westlake Village is a boarder, British solicitor, train waiter, French nightclub emcee, painter and vintage Texan in a wheelchair. Paul Panico turns up as the can’t get-rid-of tour guide, Luigi whose suit alone is a clue to his flashy character. Mix in Kurt Kemper as Punk, Mr. Loomis, Bellhop, cabaret waiter, whose real-life youthful looks mask sheer talent. Tamarah Ashton-Coombs is the spinster, Southern lady, museum docent and nun.

Jim Diderrich of Simi Valley has the unenviable task of being The Body, a taxidermist’s masterpiece in a wheelchair, elegantly dressed with sunglasses, hat and boutonniere.

A canine connection is why the 8 p.m., Friday, June 8 performance of “Lucky Stiff,” will in part benefit Zoe’s Friends Animal Rescue, a 501(c)3 non-profit whose namesake is a three-legged friend “saved” by Cindy Lotspike. The Westlake Village is Zoe Friends’ founder and president.  Eight dollars of every $20 ticket is ear-marked for the rescue group which helps critters in high-kill shelters escape euthanasia, and be placed with “furever” loving homes.

Reserved seating is $18 for adults, $16 for students and seniors. On the special June 8 performance, of each $20 ticket, $8 will go to Zoe’s Friends Animal Rescue. For tickets June 8 and otherwise, call (805) 381-1246, or visit online at 

Hillcrest Center for the Arts is at 403 W. Hillcrest Dr., Thousand Oaks (accessed from McCloud St. off Hillcrest).