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The Aurora Theatre launches its new season in a new (temporary) venue with the musical Lucky Stiff

We're unlikely ever to see the film Weekend at Bernie's adapted as a Broadway musical, although the idea's not as deadly as it may seem. Currently, Broadway loves turning famous movies into stage musicals, with successes like The Producers inspiring the musicalized version of, say, The Wedding Singer. If Adam Sandler comedies can make the Great White Way, why not a 1989 farce about partying with a corpse?

The only real barrier to Bernie's: the Musical! is that it already exists -- almost. With Lucky Stiff, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty constructed musical numbers around a premise that, while not identical to Weekend at Bernie's, is close enough to make the movie obsolete. Aurora Theatre stages a breezy production of Lucky Stiff that boasts one great running gag, although the behind-the-scenes drama proves more compelling than the onstage silliness.

In May, Aurora Theatre prepared to move from Duluth to its new hometown of Lawrenceville. Aurora is converting a former church into a new theater that will feature a 250-seat main stage and a 100-seat black box for edgier fare. After rehearsals of Lucky Stiff had started, however, the company learned that its planned interim space, on the fourth floor of Lawrenceville's City Hall, would not be ready in time.

Rather than cancel Lucky Stiff, Aurora searched for a suitable venue in Lawrenceville and settled on the auditorium at Central Gwinnett High School. (The interim facility at City Hall will be ready for the company's next production, Glorious, and the permanent theatre is scheduled to be finished by April 2007.)

The school setting might inspire flashbacks to drama club versions of The Sound of Music, but the spacious, brick auditorium turns out to be a perfectly adequate venue -- except for some acoustic quirks and the absence of cushioning on the seats. The school environment actually infuses Lucky Stiff with a kind of "Let's put on a show!" excitement, emphasized by artistic director Anthony Rodriguez's self-deprecating curtain speech. The production's splashy set even suggests youthful energy, with the painted backdrops suggesting the kind of illustrations found in a color Sunday comic strip.

While the youth of some of the cast members and the English accents conjure negative associations with high school shows, Lucky Stiff would seem frivolous regardless where you saw it. Reserved English shoe salesman Harry Witherspoon (Drew Archer) receives a telegram, setting his neighbors atwitter with the tune "Mr. Witherspoon's Friday Night," featuring some of the tongue-twisting complexity of English music-hall songs.

Harry learns that his Uncle Tony, a relative he's never met, has bequeathed him $6 million on the condition that he take his uncle's body for a prepaid weekend in Monte Carlo. If Harry falters in his task, the fortune will fall to a cash-strapped Brooklyn dog shelter, which sends employee Annabel Glick (Kathryn Berrong) to monitor Harry.

Even more complications come from Tony's girlfriend Rita (Andrea Bramson), a legally blind, gun-toting floozy who flies to Monte Carlo in hot pursuit. Bramson overplays a role that's overly broad to begin with, although she finds laughs in mangling French words and nearsightedly talking to hat racks. Of the ensemble, Jessie Dougherty Dean and Jimi Kocina provide highlights as two cheesily "romantic" casino singers, bringing unctuous gusto to the songs "Monte Carlo!" and "Speaking French."

A show-biz adage cautions, "Never work with children and animals," and judging from Gabriel Dean's scene-stealing turn as Uncle Tony, "corpses" should be on that list. Propped up in a wheelchair, Dean conveys a hilariously flexible form of rigor mortis that's flexible enough to hold toothy grins, festive gestures and even jiggle in place while on a moving train.

Uncle Tony's presence even carries a little thematic weight. In "Good to Be Alive" and "Lucky," Archer captures Harry's perspective on enjoying life literally in the face of death. Director Susan Reid stages an elaborate, whimsical "montage" of Harry taking Tony sky-diving, snorkeling and other lively activities. Nevertheless, Lucky Stiff seldom generates any suspense that someone will notice Tony's morbid condition, or that Harry will suffer consequences if they do.

In both her singing and acting chops, Berrong emerges as the show's strongest performer. In "Times Like This," she juxtaposes romantic loneliness with the love of dogs, and manages to appear sincere despite the rest of the show's yucks. Although playing a repressed, uncertain character, Berrong commands our attention more than the zanier figures. Annabel remarks, after an uncharacteristic act of abandon, "I hope you don't think I'm the sort of person who just goes out and ... has fun." Despite Berrong's focused work, Annabel remains the kind of annoying stereotype that equates idealism with self-denial and aversion to pleasure.

Lucky Stiff marked the first musical created by Ahrens and Flaherty, and shows little of the invention they brought to their best works: Ragtime and A Man of No Importance. Nevertheless, the show's energy will appeal to Aurora's audience base, which, judging from the Sunday matinee I attended, will eagerly follow the company anywhere. In both its content and its circumstances, the production affirms Aurora's spirit of "never say die."

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