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"Dead" Reckoning 

Theater review: Lucky Stiff at Skinner Barn

click to enlarge Matt Trollinger as Harry and Micaela Mendicino as Annabel
  • Matt Trollinger as Harry and Micaela Mendicino as Annabel

My mom, who grew up on a farm, has explained to her suburban-bred daughter that a dairy barn’s hayloft occasionally plays host to friskier activities than mere feed storage. I doubt, however, that the cows who once placidly chewed cud in Waitsfield’s Skinner Barn ever experienced wild theatrical shenanigans, such as those in Lucky Stiff, unfolding overhead amid the fresh-mown hay. For the venue’s annual summer musical, Barn baron Peter Boynton presents a raucous, cartoonish caper crammed with deliciously over-the-top roles.

All 11 members of the cast radiate scenery-chewing glee — and demonstrate excellent singing chops — as they bring to life the 40 crazy characters of the Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty 1988 musical farce. Director Nick Corley uses imaginative staging to conjure swift scene changes and exotic locales among the converted hayloft’s rustic posts and beams. Wireless microphones, made necessary by the band’s electronic keyboards, sometimes misbehave, and fail to make the best use of the Barn’s glorious acoustics. Nevertheless, top-notch talent and boundless energy fuel a limber, lighthearted evening of hoof-tapping entertainment.

The story primarily takes place in Monte Carlo, with a plot more convoluted than the corniches above the Riviera resort. The Hôtel de Paris hosts sundry characters pursuing $6 million that belonged to recently deceased casino manager Tony from Atlantic City.

Shoe salesman Harry, Tony’s milquetoast nephew from East Grinstead, England, stands to inherit everything. That is, if he fulfills his uncle’s last wish: to give him a week’s luxury vacation in the Mediterranean gambling mecca. The catch? Harry must take Tony’s taxidermied, wheelchair-bound corpse skydiving, scuba diving and nightclubbing with a sultry chanteuse.

If Harry fails to execute Uncle Tony’s instructions precisely, the loot goes to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn. The charity sends nerdy canine lover Annabel to tail hound-hating Harry. Meanwhile, Rita, the jealous Jersey Jezebel who “accidentally” shot her paramour Tony, arrives in Monte Carlo with her brother Vinnie. They need to recover the dough, which she and Tony embezzled from her husband. The fibbing floozy blamed the theft on her straitlaced optometrist sib.

With so many characters lusting after the lucre, and action that swirls around a dapperly dressed cadaver, chaotic confusion ensues. A dizzying series of surprises spins characters toward unexpected destinies.

The longtime collaboration between director Corley and producer Boynton on the summer shows results in wonderfully inventive use of the Barn’s small playing area and spare surroundings. (For Lucky Stiff, Corley also designs sets and choreographs; Boynton performs in the cast.) For example, Corley positions actors to illustrate modes of transportation without adding pieces to the set. For a crowded English trolley, players stand uncomfortably close, jostling and bouncing to the streetcar’s uneven motion. To represent an elegant French train, they perch pleasantly on leather suitcases, smiling as they sway to the smooth ride.

The relative simplicity of production elements places the focus on the talented performers. Matt Trollinger and Micaela Mendicino pair beautifully as Harry and Annabel, innocents who find themselves among sordid characters in surreal circumstances. Trollinger conveys shy Harry’s eagerness to “think positive,” while Mendicino captures prim Annabel’s plucky resolve. In their first song together, “Dogs Versus You,” a vigorous vocal battle presages the duo’s feisty tug-of-war ahead. Much later, the singers harmonize sweetly in “Nice,” reflecting how far their relationship has come.

Mary Wheeler and Kristopher Holz, as naughty Rita and nervous Vinnie, play the unlikely siblings with vaudevillian relish. Wheeler works Rita’s wenchy wardrobe — cleavage-baring black lace and gold lamé — while loudly snapping gum and wildly wielding a gun. Holz gives bespectacled, bow tied and Brylcreemed Vinnie winsome charm. He brings out the dweeb’s inner diva when he operatically explains to his wife, in “The Phone Call,” why a Mafia contract on his life means he won’t make it home for dinner. Kudos to Ruth Ann Pattee and Annemarie Furey for wonderful, character-enhancing costumes.

As siren songstress Dominique Du Monaco, Taryn Noelle puts beaucoup “ooh-la-la” into her seductive performance. In her big nightclub number, “Speaking French,” the singer’s suggestive moves and smoky vocals make clear what language Dominique really prefers. (Noelle also assists Corley with the clever choreography.) As Tony, Doug Bergstein gracefully accomplishes the feat of maintaining his deadpan expression throughout the high jinks. He remains a composed corpse as others wheel and whirl his dead character around the set.

Vermont actors who regularly play lead parts (including Boynton) fill out the ensemble. They create dozens of nutty characters with zest. Vibrant Judy Milstein’s memorable personae include Harry’s meddlesome landlady, Vinnie’s dippy nurse and the hotel’s soused maid, who tipples from her own flask.

The Barn’s limitations as a theater — no backstage, no wings … it’s an old hayloft! — seem to drive the resourcefulness of Boynton and company. Instead of relying on lavish production design and technical pizzazz, they focus on the essential elements of putting on a good show: marvelously talented performers, a playful artistic approach, beautiful music, imagination. And in so doing, they always manage to create theatrical magic.

Want to see for yourself?

Lucky Stiff, directed by Nick Corley, produced by Peter Boynton. The Skinner Barn, Waitsfield, August 4-8 at 8 p.m. $20.

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