“From now on I’ll have no one to ruin my day. A view won’t be a view without you in my way.”
The cutely stylish film adaptation of the musical Lucky Stiff (directed by Christopher Ashley and written by Lynn Ahrens) is a zany romp which is small in stature yet big in heart. Lucky Stiff debuted off-Broadway in 1988 with few showings and has been performed ever since by theater aficionados, though never gaining widespread popularity. The film. set in the early 1970s, casts British actor Dominic Marsh as Harry Witherspoon, a boring shoe salesman living a very dull life. Lucky Stiff is of the sung-dialogue variety of musicals; Harry describes his mind-numbing shoe selling job by singing “One shoe salesman going quietly insane.” Being as Lucky Stiff takes place in the mystical, magical land of musicals, anything can happen and does, to very amusing effect. Good fortune shines down on Harry in the form of a telegram informing him that his long-lost American Uncle Anthony has passed away and left him a fortune of six million dollars. All Harry has to do is follow a few minor instructions to receive his inheritance. The inheritance terms are taking his dead uncle, who has been “taxidermied” to perfection and placed in a wheelchair with suit and shades to appear alive, on a trip to Monte Carlo!
Though the premise of how Harry has to gain his inheritance is over-the-top and utterly ridiculous, what else would one expect from a mysterious rich dead uncle in a silly musical? Of course he would want his humdrum nephew to cart him around Europe and do exciting things; to shake Harry out of the doldrums, no matter how oddly. Yet Harry has competition in his quest to receive his riches in the form of mousy animal activist Annabel Glick, played by the enchanting Broadway star Nikki M. James. Ms. Glick trails Harry’s every move in Monte Carlo, for if he does not fulfill every condition of the will, which include such activities as parasailing, playing roulette, and buying fancy duds with his dead uncle, the money will instead be awarded to Ms. Glick and the Universal Dog Home in Brooklyn. Further complicating Harry’s pursuit are the brother and sister duo of frazzled optometrist Vinnie Di Ruzzio (Jason Alexander) and legally-blind, homicidal Rita LaPorta (Pamela Shaw). The pair have a nefarious connection to the six million dollars and travel to Monte Carlo to get it back by any means.
To say that this musical is wacky is an understatement. For instance, on Harry’s trip via train to Monte Carlo, he is met by Luigi (Dennis Farina, in his last film appearance) a man who offers to show Harry and his uncle around Monte Carlo. The train passengers then joyfully dance in the train car, around stone-still Uncle Anthony, singing that it is “good to be alive”. As with a musical of this whimsical variety all manner of mistaken identity, cross-dressing and misplaced corpses occur. The plot becomes more madcap as the film progresses, at times utilizing animation in transitions, within musical numbers and as a symbol of character’s psyches. Harry is not fond of dogs and when he thinks of them, jagged, snarling cartoon dogs pop up to bite him. The animations help to bridge the span from stage to screen and are an adorable addition.
Though what is described above is loony, Lucky Stiff beats with a heart of gold in the form of Nikki M. James as Ms. Glick. This is admittedly a small musical film and will not get the attention that many mainstream quasi-musicals undeservedly receive, yet Ms. James’ performance is a delight and should be praised. She is a pure talent, with the ability to infuse longing, sadness, and joy into her performance and stellar voice. The two best scenes in Lucky Stiff feature Ms. James; she sings a of song of loneliness titled ‘Times Like This’ which features her melancholy and a smile that is like sunshine. Her duet with Harry titled ‘Nice’, in which the two sing of their weird adventure and contentious relationship, though with tender romantic chemistry and obvious feelings for one another. The charmingly teasing line of “It was nice fighting you, nice hating you, nice knowing I was aggravating you.” sung between the two is heart-melting. I look forward to seeing a lot more of Ms. James on screen in the future; her beauty and delicate manner would be an asset to the film world.
Lucky Stiff will appeal to theater buffs and those looking for a goofy musical tale. This is not the big-budget bloated Hollywood musical prevalent today. The casting of recognizable actors like Alexander and Farina next to younger actors like James (already a Tony Award Winner from her performance in The Book of Mormon) and Marsh lend a humble atmosphere to the film. This is not a cash grab; this is a light-hearted enjoyable musical of joy and whimsy. As Harry and Annabel sing, “Amazing, but true, it was nice.”