TBT provides perfect summer season opener

Newly hired Thunder Bay Theatre Artistic Director Heather Nordenbrock should be extremely pleased with her first show out of the gate. The musical comedy, “Lucky Stiff,” opened Wednesday to an appreciative audience who found plenty of zany characterizations and comical situations to laugh over.

The show also gave patrons their first look at the new core company that features some strong, young talent. Michael Idalski, Amy Groen, Lisa Lull and Paul Docter all are fresh faces at TBT, and all clearly proved why they were bought in for the summer. The four joined the likes of local actors Mackenzie Fountain, Zachariah Clement and Suni Travis, who continue to entertain audiences in their own right. Nick Hartman, Rick Mesler and Molly Stricker, also local, added to the overall likability of the show as well.

Three cheers for the new sound system, too. The balance it allowed for between the musical accompaniment and the vocals made a big difference in the quality of the listening experience. It’s also great to have the talented Bunny Lyon back doing a show as music director/accompanist.

From the moment the cast of “Lucky Stiff” playfully poke their heads out of various doorways and curtains on set to the opening number, “Something Funny’s Going On,” the energy level stays high. The plot follows humdrum shoe salesman Harry Witherspoon (Mike Idalski) as he sees his boring, ordinary life turned upside down with an unexpected bequest from a recently deceased uncle he’s never met.

It seems the bequest for a cool $6 million carries some major string attachments. Harry can’t inherit the money unless he takes his dead uncle preserved by a taxidermist and propped ashen faced in a wheelchair to Monte Carlo for the vacation he always wanted. Harry bites on the chance to reverse his fortunes and sets out for Europe, dead uncle in tow.

Along the way, Harry encounters the very straight-laced Annabel Glick (Amy Groen), who’s on a mission of her own. Should Harry default on any of the instructions spelled out in his uncle’s will, the $6 million will then go to the dog-related charity for which Annabel works. Both Idalski and Groen bring quality voices to the production.

Harry also encounters the loopy Jersey girl, Rita LaPorta (Lisa Lull), who unbeknownst to him, is responsible for the death of his uncle at an Atlantic City casino. Complicating things further for Harry and his mission are the fact that Rita stole the $6 million dollar fortune that’s up for grabs from her husband and has blamed it on her brother, the very trepidatious Vinnie DiRuzzio (Mackenzie Fountain). Because he’s been framed, Vinnie now has a contract out on his life.

One of this duo’s best scenes comes during their singing of “The Phone Call.” In a phone booth of old, Vinnie tries to explain feebly to his wife back in the States why he won’t be coming home for dinner. At the same time, Rita is using her fake French charms on hotel management in an attempt to locate just where Harry and his wheel-chair bound uncle are staying. The scene is both well-blocked and well-played.

Characters and creative set pieces flow on and off the stage at a good clip for the nearly two-hour run of the show. Several of the performers play multiple roles, Rick Mesler among them. More than anyone else in the show, Mesler and his bag full of facial contortions and intentionally odd mannerisms had the audience rolling every time he came on stage.

Nick Hartman proves plenty entertaining as well, particularly as the French emcee in Monte Carlo. Suni Travis does her usual topnotch job as a lounge singer, belting out the sultry song, “Speaking French.” Zachariah Clement also deserves some kudos. Even though he’s playing the dead uncle and as such, must sit in a wheelchair the vast majority of the time and wear the same facial expression despite the hilarity going on around him, Clement pulls it off extremely well.

Nordenbrock and her production team paid attention to many of the little details that added up the set appears well-conceived and finished, and the lighting is key, especially during a rousing strobe-lit dream sequence. Even the curtain call at the end is fun because of some in-character special touches employed.

Switching gears ever so slightly here, I’ve been doing this theatre gig long enough now that I’ve lost count of the number of artistic directors I’ve seen come through TBT, share their talents and then move on for a variety of reasons. Generally speaking, I steer clear of any nitty, gritty reasons behind personnel changes, but I do want to say I sincerely hope folks don’t stay away from this perfect summer season opener out of frustration over the recent change in leadership at the theatre.

From my humble position in the audience, the previous director put up some outstanding shows, and now it’s Nordenbrock’s turn to do likewise. She and her 10-member cast, plus her talented production team, are making it happen for sure. TBT is a jewel for Northeast Michigan, and one whose hard-working cast and crew deserves full support for a thoroughly enjoyable show.