Niche Markets

A decade before they hit the big time with shows like Ragtime and Seussical the Musical, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty banged out their brassy Broadway style in another bit of musical fluff: Lucky Stiff. Based on Michael Butterworth's novel The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, the farce tells the story of Harry Witherspoon, a lowly English shoe salesman who stands to inherit $6 million from an American uncle he's never met. The catch? First he has to cart his taxidermied uncle to Monte Carlo for the weeklong vacation the dead man never got to take while he was alive.

The silly story and simple music suit the wide-eyed actors and big-voiced singers at Masquerade Theatre. The cast tackles Lucky Stiff's slapstick jokes with childlike exuberance.

Of course, there's not much more for them to grab on to -- the characters are drawn in the broad, quick strokes of a cartoon. Nerdy Harry Witherspoon (Luther Chakurian) wears big black taped-together glasses and tries to have sad-sack fun in Monte Carlo. Of course, this is made more difficult by the fact that he's pushing a corpse around in a wheelchair and being followed by Annabel Glick (Allison Sumrall), the mousy girl-next-door who's also got a stake in the fortune.

Dressed in a poodle skirt and lugging a dog-bone suitcase, Annabel represents a canine rescue charity called the Universal Dog Home. Should Harry not do everything the will demands, man's best friend gets the six mil. So Annabel has her nose super-glued to the grindstone, dogging Harry through Monte Carlo's nightlife and waiting for him to screw up.

Into this already ridiculous story comes Rita La Porta (Rebekah Dahl), Uncle Tony's ex-girlfriend, the one who shot him dead. Apparently Tony stole the $6 million from her, and she's come to Monte Carlo to get it back. Bat-blind but too vain for glasses, Rita is packing a pistol and she's prepared to use it, even if she can't aim.

It's true that Russell Freeman's set wobbles back and forth, and yes, one can sometimes hear the crew whispering off stage. But the actors sing with loud, clear, limber voices, hitting high notes and harmonies with equal grace. And they're obviously having fun with the show (though Chakurian ought to give up the English accent that he feigns every now and then). While Phillip K. Duggins's direction amounts to little more than having the actors move up and down the tiny stage (all the important moments happen right under the audience's nose), he's got his show moving so quickly that you'll hardly notice.

Lucky Stiff plays like a two-hour Carol Burnett Show skit; it's amusing in a safe, generic, family entertainment way. Even the friendly teenage ushers seem like they've come from some Rockwellian netherworld. Duggins, Masquerade's artistic director, is clearly bound and determined to keep his theater squeaky-clean (even the cigarette an actor smokes in one scene is fake). This strategy hardly makes for great art, but judging by this show's audience, there's clearly a market out there for good, sanitized, energetic fun.

With a title like Fruit Cocktail, it's pretty obvious what Eric Lane Barnes's musical revue is about. But just in case you're in the dark when you sit down at Theatre New West, the opening song about drama queens will set you, er, straight.

Barnes's funny, tuneful take on gay life covers lots of familiar territory. "Available," sung with great flaming joy by Chris Pool, is about a drag queen who fawns over a man who treats him badly. Buzz Bellmont and David Barron sing "It's All in Your Mind," which, according to the song, is where great sex comes from. And the entire cast struts its stuff in "Vitamin Q," a sort of anthem to the power of living gay.

But Barnes does more here than tell the same old stories. The inventive songwriter also skewers unexpected aspects of pop culture with the same tenderly ironic take. "Three Little Words" lampoons the tired phrases -- "You go, girl!" and "Oh, my God!" and "Like, no way!" -- uttered by everyone from schoolgirls to Oprah. One of the best numbers, "Arkansas," starts out sounding like an ordinary ballad: "Have you ever been to Arkansas?" But then it makes a sharp turn into left field with lines like "Have you ever made an omelette wearing John Ashcroft's panties?"

There are many more odd musical moments throughout the show; one involves a sing-along in which pianist Michael Harren manages to coax the audience into warbling, "I've got underwear a plenty in my underwear drawer." The whimsy of these moments is impossible to resist.

Joe Watts takes a laissez-faire approach in directing this show, and there isn't much in the way of set or lighting in the makeshift theater. But the cast sings well -- Braden Hunt and Pool, especially. And Barnes's oddball songs are nothing if not entertaining.

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Lee Williams