Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Based on the 1988 Steve Martin/Michael Caine movie, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels tells the story of two con men working the French RivieraLawrence Jameson (Paul Schoeffler), a suave sophisticate, and Freddy Benson (Ben Dibble), a lowlife with "a real gift / For penny-ante grift." Lawrence takes Freddy under his wing, but they end up competing for the money and the affections of an American heiress (Jessica Rush).
David Yazbek's score veers from funk to ballads to country and rock parodies to big, brassy dance numbers, and he handles all the styles well. His songs are full of gently loping melodies and adroit wordplay: One song references Cezanne and Don Giovanni, another rhymes "poker" with "Al Roker," while yet another makes a political joke that brings down the house. Jeffrey Lane's book takes its time introducing the characters; act one takes so much time establishing the characters of Lawrence and Freddy that it's nearly an hour before the leading lady makes her entrance. Once she does, the plot twists keep coming fast and furious. Still, it's a very funny book, with a lot of lines that wink knowingly at the audience and break the fourth wall (when Lawrence gets confused, he wonders, "Did I miss a scene?"). But, for every knowing allusion to My Fair Lady, there's a corny knee-slapper, as when Lawrence's assistant Andre tells his boss of a rich potential mark from Oklahoma: "Her people are in oil." "Crude?" "Well, she is a little pushy."
Dibble has a lot of wide-eyed, manic energy as Freddy, and Rush brings carefree, sunny charm (and a glorious voice) to the part of the woman the two crooks battle over. But there are problems with the third side of this triangle: while Paul Schoeffler sings his role superbly, he is not ideally cast as Lawrence. The script portrays Lawrence as a father figure to Freddy, but since Schoeffler only appears to be about a decade older than Dibble, there's not enough contrast between them. On Broadway, John Lithgow played Lawrence with a delightfully cartoonish vanity, but Schoeffler, sporting a haircut that makes him resemble Liev Schreiber, plays the role with too much brooding intensity. When Lithgow compared his own "perfect" body to Michelangelo's David, one laughed at the absurdity of it; when Schoeffler makes the same comparison, one gets the sad feeling he might actually believe it.
Director Richard Stafford gives every cast member a chance to shine. His care is most apparent in the romance between Andre (Fran Prisco) and an American tourist (Mary Martello). On Broadway, this subplot felt like an unnecessary appendage, but Prisco and Martello have such great chemistry and warmth (not to mention comic skill) that their romance gives this outlandish show a needed touch of humanity. Stafford also provides the choreography, which seems rather awkward at times, especially during the opening number. (Twice during the show, a dancing chorus appears to repeat a song's final verse while camouflaging a scenery change. It just makes the show seem longer.)
Robert Andrew Kovach's set design is somewhat odd. Several major scenes are played on a raised platform at the rear of the stage, diluting their impact. Martello has the burden of singing a number on that platform behind a translucent scrim, making it impossible for her to score laughs even as she sings some of the show's cleverest lyrics.
The few missteps, however, don't damage the show. Yazbek and Lane have crafted a show that features funny lines, catchy tunes and memorable characters. Even if not everything works, the Walnut's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is still a whole lot of fun.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs through October 25, 2009 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $70, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels