Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's first collaboration, "Lucky Stiff," which they wrote nearly a quarter-century ago, races across the stage like a brisk summer storm, packing gusts of laughter and silliness.
The musical, which opened Tuesday at Walnut Creek's Center Repertory Company, is a sweet and silly show that makes clear from the beginning why this rookie effort brought Ahrens and Flaherty -- who went on to write "Once on This Island," "Ragtime" and "Seussical" -- to the attention of Broadway's musical cognoscenti. But "Lucky Stiff" stands on its own two feet and offers a new angle on the Ahrens and Flaherty style.
It turns out they are rare talents at farce, with a knack for tomfoolery and a machine-gun approach to comedy, high- and lowbrow, where they throw jokes and bits without pausing to let the laughs politely fade.
The story, based on Michael Butterworth's novel "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo," starts off as a fairly simple tale but develops more twists than a mangled drinking straw. Harry Witherspoon (Keith Pinto) is a British shoe salesman with a life as exciting as tepid tea when he receives a telegram asking him to report to an attorney. The attorney informs him his uncle has died, leaving him $6 million, provided he take the taxidermied body of said uncle, Anthony Hendon (Joel Roster), and show him a good time for a week.
Harry has never seen nor heard of the old gent, but he heads immediately to Monte
Adding to the adventure is Rita La Porta (Linda DiVito), who thinks she has killed Hendon, who was her lover and partner in stealing $6 million in diamonds from her husband. She enlists her brother, a steadfast doormat of an optometrist (Benjamin Pither), to head to Europe in search of the diamonds.
They all end up at the same hotel, where they run into a variety of characters -- greedy bellmen, drunken chambermaids, girls just wanting to have fun, night club dancers, a greasy-smooth night club singer, various people with a United Nations worth of accents, and others, played by Tielle Baker, Evan Boomer, Taylor Jones, Marcus Klinger and Colin Thomson.
The ensemble is terrific with its hilarious comic characterizations and ability to get in and out of costumes in the blink of an eye.
The principals are every bit as funny, with special praise to DiVito for her hard-as-nails New Jersey bimbo character, and Roster, who shows an uncanny knack for being dead in a very funny way.
Pinto and Marcus pull off the comedy well, but more impressive is their ability to play a pair of youngish people who are not sure of who they are and what they should be doing.
Robert Barry Fleming directs the farce masterfully, providing some nice choreography and establishing a perfect pace for the musical. Brandon Adams provides excellent music for Ahrens and Flaherty's tunes, which deliver laughs as well as real heart-tugging emotion.
Kelly Tighe created an excellent set, filled with doors and wall panels perfect for farcical chases. Christine Crook's costumes set the mood wonderfully, as did Lew Mead's sound design and Wesley Apfel's technical work.
Contact Pat Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty; presented by Center Repertory Company
Through: Oct. 7
Where: Lesher Center for the Arts, Civic Drive at Locust Street, Walnut Creek
Running time: 2 hours,
Tickets: $38-$53; 925-943-7469 or www.centerrep.org