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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
By Elyse Sommer
The fun begins as the de rigueur voiceover announcement sets the tone for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' tongue-in-cheek humor with "there will be no announcement at this performance." The overture doesn't make us wait for the dancing and singing to begin either.
No sooner does the band strike up the first note, than the French Riviera scrim rises and David Yazbek's catchy music and Jerry Mitchell's lively choreography have the Dirty Rotten Scoundrel ensemble singing and cavorting around the stage. When the first of the two scoundrelly leads, Lawrence Jameson (John Lithgow), and his accommodating crony police chief Andre Thibault (Gregory Jbara) join the ensemble and sing "Give Them What They Want " they're not kidding. If you've been looking for a new musical with an old-fashioned golden era mix of a frothy, not-to-be-taken seriously book, a tuneful score with clever (and often delectably lowbrow) lyrics that rhyme delightfully, look no further.
Fans of the 1988 film of the same name, can rest easy that this isn't another musicalizations of a non-musical film, that fails to live up to the original. First time Broadway book writer Jeffrey Lane has retained the fun of the films plot about two con men who have staked out the French Riviera to charm wealthy American women out of their money and jewels (or both). While Michael Caine and Steve Martin were an irresistible contrasting pair of scoundrels, so these song and dance con artists are ideally matched. Norbert Leo Butz's Freddy Benson is the Jeff to the six foot four inch tall Lithgow's Mutt, the boor to his debonair gentleman. And though Scoundrels may not have quite the heart of the Full Monty, Yatzbek and Mitchell have invested it with the same freshness and vitality; and director Jack O'Brien (who also directed Hairspray) once again displays his ability to deftly balance sophisticated and broad comedy, romantic and novelty numbers.
The scoundrels portrayed by Lithgow and Butz aren't quite the fully realized, easy to identify with characters as The Producers' Bialystock and Bloom who also rip off vulnerable women, team up with a sexy blonde bombshell, and inevitably become the duped rather than those doing the duping. But no matter. Lithgow and Butz are a treat to watch.
Lithgow is, of course, a seasoned actor; however, Butz, though he has appeared on and off Broadway before -- as a show stopping support player in the ill-fated Thou Shalt Not and in The Last Five Years, the Off-Broadway two-hander with Sherie Renee Scott, who is currently Scoundrel Freddy's "mark"-- he really comes into his own as the schlumpy Freddy.
I can't say enough about Butz's superstar making performance which showcases him as a droll comic actor and a knockout song and dance man. It's not con artistry but sheer talent that causes him to nearly steal the show -- a heist prevented only by the ensemble's excellence and Lithgow's Coward-esque suaveness and superb handling of low as well as high comedy. He's hilarious as the retarded Prince Ruprecht, a gross imbecile invented to scare off Jolene Oakes (Sara Gettelfinger), the Oklahoma heiress bent on marrying Lawrence. He's equally entertaining when he dons a soldier's uniform and pretends to be wheelchair bound to inveigle Christine Colgate (Sherie Rene Scott) into paying for the expensive cure by the sadistic Viennese Dr. Schuffhausen (Lithgow). Butz's ability to put across a show tune is epitomized by the sassy, brassy "Great Big Stuff" in which he sums up his yearnings for being a sleek big-time scoundrel rather than a smalltime grifter ("I'm tired of being a chump, I want to live like Trump").
As the show-stopping "Great Big Stuff" is Yabeck's tip of the hat to hip-hop, there are allusions to other shows and show styles as well: Gettlefinger's Jolene Oakes being from Oklahoma paves the way for a parody of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical as she sings "Not a tree / Or a Jew / To block the lovely view." Echoes of My Fair Lady's snobbish professor are not hard to spot when Lawrence accepts the challenge of transforming the eager to improve his caper skills Freddy because he's "so deliciously low."
We also get a taste of the sugary ballads that were once standard seasoning for the popular musicals Scoundrels aims to recreate for us -- in Freddy and Christine's "Nothing Is too Wonderful to Be True" and when O'Brien poses Lithgow against a lamp post to sing "Love Sneaks In" to evoke images of Frank Sintra and Gene Kelly. (Nice as that Lithgow ballad is, it is completely out of synch with where the story is going). Joanna Gleason's Muriel Eubanks, the first of the show's three ripe for the picking women, wouldn't be vital to the plot if she didn't supply another standard element for old-fashioned musical fare -- a subsidiary plot, in this case her romance with Andre (Jbara), delightfully done and sung (e.g.: "Like Zis/Like Zat").
To rev up the good-time feeling, the fourth wall is occasionally broken with asides to and from the audience. Towards the end of the first act, for example, Gleason insures her return in the second with "I can't imagine I won't be useful to someone in act two." In the same vein, Lithgow asks "didn't we do this before? " about a scene running from one act into the next.
David Rockwell recreates the glamorous Mediterranean setting with numerous set pieces that move the action from hotel lobbies and bedrooms, to a gambling casino, and a sunny beach front. Some of these sets are rolled on and of stage, some descend from the ceiling. Gregg Barnes' colorful costumes and Kenneth Posner's lighting add to the visual assets. When added up, those assets outweigh the plot's tendency to drift and the songs not always moving the story forward. Unlike the crass Good Vibrations, this is an enjoyable old fashioned book musical that's intentionally low-brow -- but with style.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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