Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Book by Jeffrey Lane. Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek. Based on the film "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" written by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Music Direction and Incidental Music Arrangements by Ted Sperling. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler. Starring Jonathan Pryce, Norbert Leo Butz, Rachel York, Joanna Gleason, Gregory Jbara; Also Starring Mylinda Hull; Timothy J. Alex, Roxane Barlow, Jacqueline Bayne, Stephen Campanella, Julie Connors, Jeremy Davis, Rachel de Benedet, Laura Marie Duncan, Sally Mae Dunn, Jenifer Foote, Tom Galantich, Jason Gillman, Greg Graham, Amy Heggins, Rachelle Rak, Chuck Saculla, Timothy Edward Smith, Dennis Stowe, Matt Wall.
Some faces may have changed, but the con remains the same at the Imperial. The David Yazbek-Jeffrey Lane musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, now having weathered a year on Broadway and three major cast changes, is still deftly pulling off one of the biggest snow jobs in show biz: Masquerading as a modern musical while in fact being as old-fashioned as they come.
This was often difficult to detect the first time around, as original star John Lithgow set the tone with a delicately balanced performance reminiscent of... well, his work in everything. Never playing British scam artist extraordinaire Lawrence Jameson as much as playing John Lithgow playing Lawrence Jameson, Lithgow approached every song, spoken line, and bit of stage business with the meticulously layered commitment of a master Shakespearean. It wasn't right for a musical comedy this frivolous, this frenzied, this fulsome, but it worked in its own limited way.
Now that Jonathan Pryce, the original Engineer in Miss Saigon, has assumed the role, it's easier to understand and appreciate the Method behind Lithgow's madness. In every way, Pryce gives a more brightly polished Broadway musical performance, which surprisingly proves to be the last thing Dirty Rotten Scoundrels needed.
Holding court with the dapper air of a seasoned nightclub crooner, Pryce's Lawrence is slickly subtle where Lithgow's was amorously affected. Pryce sings smoothly and confidently approaches the craziness of Lane's breathless, bedraggled book, but there's a piercing tentativeness to much of his work (particularly in the earliest scenes) that's not an immediately comforting beginning for a show that needs all the anchoring it can get.
Lithgow's stuffiness might have been at odds with the rest of the free-wheeling company, but it provided a sorely needed launching point for an evening of fast-paced artificiality. Pryce takes too long to get there, with his Lawrence not coming into his own until the competition starts heating up with small-time grifter Freddy Benson (Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz), an unpredictably cunning adversary for the fortune - and favors - of vacationing American soap queen Christine Colgate (Rachel York).
Even after he's come out of his shell, you half expect Pryce to break character completely and sell you a used car. And for him, character is a fluid concept anyway: Frequently assailing the audience with reproachful glares for laughing (and thus, of course, inspiring even more laughter), Pryce becomes a shameless ham in otherwise kosher comic surroundings. His performance is undeniably entertaining, yet it's so disconnected from its surroundings that he summons up images of the kind of semi-stars on whose presence shows were routinely structured until Oklahoma! proved that shows could be written rather than cobbled together.
While this kind of work might be ideal for another show (it would certainly liven up the terminally dreary Spamalot), it's devastating here, bringing down the already fragile house of cards that is Jack O'Brien's production. Among the effects: David Rockwell's already low-rent French Riviera sets become even more two-dimensionally dyspeptic, and Jerry Mitchell's perfunctory choreography swells with even more pedestrian panache than it did previously.
But it does explain the casting of York, a first-rate belter and smashing sexpot who's heated up shows like City of Angels and Victor/Victoria, but who here reads as second-understudy casting: She's no threat for Pryce's last-minute-road-replacement Lawrence. Deglammed to look impossibly lower-middle class and so pulled out of her comfortable singing range that you long for more amplification for her highest notes, York vanishes on a stage where even the most anonymous ensemble members present some personality.
You even understand Mylinda Hull, who's taken over Broadway's most thankless assignment as an Oklahoma oil heiress who tries to lasso Lawrence into a life of Midwest drudgery with "Oklahoma?", an eight-minute song of utter disposability. She slumps where originator Sara Gettelfinger (now in Grey Gardens) stood tall, and doesn't sing as firmly, but brings on even more good-little-crude-girl conviction to a role whose antecedents were usually filled with producers' secret girlfriends; Hull is as good as anyone could possibly be doing this.
Joanna Gleason and Gregory Jbara remain on hand to lend some useless professional gravitas to an extraneous romantic subplot. But it's Butz who continues to rule the show with his thoroughly contemporary raising of the lowest comedy to the highest art, and making it look as natural and effortless as Pryce makes it look calculated.
Whether fighting with an errant stick of beef jerky (and losing), dressing up as Lawrence's mentally and socially deficient brother to scare off the oil heiress, or playing a crippled war veteran to rob or bed the apparently innocent Christine, Butz fully personifies the spirit of go-for-broke Broadway musical comedy that everyone else consistently fails to provide.
He's also the most adroit interpreter of Yazbek's barely-good-enough score, particularly his opener, "Great Big Stuff," an ecstatic if overblown paean to the materialism on which the story thrives. But even when saddled with more musically excrescent entries (like the worthless second-act inspirational, "Love Is My Legs"), Butz's verve is so contagious that you just can't get enough of him.
It's odd, then, that anyone would dare take away one of his comic bits. Admittedly, it was a piece of nothing set in one of the Imperial's boxes, one of many tired examples of the show's relentlessly self-referential streak; the show is stronger as a text without it. But no loss of an opportunity for Butz to elevate pervasive mediocrity to even momentarily hilarious heights is a good thing.
Kudos to O'Brien and the others, however, for being willing to reconsider
the show. But it's sadly telling that of all the things that could have
been altered to improve Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the creators excised one of
the few things that, however annoying, actually worked.