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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 3, 2005

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. Cast: Starring John Lithgow, Norbert Leo Butz, Sherie Rene Scott, Joanna Gleason, Gregory Jbara. Also starring Sara Gettelfinger. Timothy J. Alex, Andrew Asnes, Roxane Barlow, Stephen Campanella, Joe Cassidy, Julie Connors, Jeremy Davis, Rachel De Benedt, Laura Marie Duncan, Sally Mae Dunn, Tom Galantich, Jason Gillman, Nina Goldman, Greg Graham, Amy Heggins, Grasan Kingsberry, Gina Lamparella, Michael Paternostro, Rachelle Rak.
Theatre: Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes including one 15 minute intermission
Audience: May be inappropriate for 11 and under. (Adult themes, strong language. No nudity and no overt sexuality.) Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM
Ticket price: $101.25, $71.25, $41.25
Tickets: Telecharge

We all know the famous saying: You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Why, then, are so many musical theatre writers today insistent on trying? Different authors succeed to different degrees, but most attempts are usually better camouflaged than they are in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

The new musical at the Imperial doesn't want for gloss, color, or slick Broadway know-how. What's missing - and all too noticeably - is a set of core principles. Okay, principles are funny things to demand from a show about con artists, but a show of any sort without a guiding set of rules has an uphill struggle in front of it, and "entertain the audience at any cost" is the kind of philosophy that only works these days for Mel Brooks.

That's what the creators of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are attempting, and while they succeed roughly half the time, it's the other, unanchored half that makes it hard to fall for this show's particular spiel. You become keenly aware at every juncture that this musical has little original framework of its own, that it's been cobbled together from (superior) parts of other recent shows, most notably The Producers, Sweet Smell of Success, and Hairspray.

At first that seems odd, because the show's source material - the 1988 film of the same name starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin - is, stylistically, its own creation. A volatile suspension of elegance, whimsy, and high and low comedy, its erratic pacing and direction (by Frank Oz) always keep you involved and even engrossed as the story increases in ridiculousness.

The musical's writers, Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics), don't attempt to replicate that style, but instead settle for simultaneously conventional and contemporary broad musical comedy. They'll go to any lengths for laughs, even to the point of making the audience aware (every five minutes, it seems) that they're watching a Broadway Musical Comedy and not a story they should become involved in; now one character is singing in the audience about the theater, now another is commenting about the moving set.

Not that this tale is one of high drama - it's about Lawrence Jameson (John Lithgow), a big-time con man who takes small-timer Freddy Benson (Norbert Leo Butz) under his wing and ends up competing with him over the money (and soon the body) of supposed American soap heiress Christine Colgate (Sherie Rene Scott). But even a frivolous musical comedy (at least one not overtly aiming for burlesque) deserves, or even needs, to be told seriously and tightly.

That never happens here. Eight minutes of the first act are spent on songs detailing Lawrence's ill-fated playing of an Oklahoma oil millionairess named Jolene (Sara Gettelfinger); another five in the second act are used for a one-joke song in which Lawrence, masquerading as a German psychologist, tries to spoil Freddy's act as a wheelchair-bound soldier. More time still is devoted to a watery romantic subplot between a woman named Muriel (Joanna Gleason) obsessed with Lawrence and Lawrence's gendarmes accomplice, Andre (Gregory Jbara).

One can't help but wonder how talents as sharp and in-demand as director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell allowed this show to remain so unkempt under their stewardship. They probably aren't fully to blame for the bargain-basement look of the piece - Kenneth Posner's lights are fine, but Gregg Barnes's generic-chic costumes and David Rockwell's two-dimensional sets could have been lifted from a low-budget cruise ship production of La Cage aux Folles - but their work overall, while professional, is undistinguished. O'Brien and Mitchell acquitted themselves with greater distinction (though working with more focused material) with the 2002 smash Hairspray, and the respectable 2000 hit, The Full Monty, also sporting a Yazbek score.

In his work here, Yazbek doesn't evoke this show's French Riviera setting as richly as he did industrial Buffalo in The Full Monty. He begins with a clunky and obvious opening, "Give Them What They Want" for Lithgow, Jbara, and the ensemble, and then delivers songs mostly revolving around lame comic hooks ("Chimp in a Suit," for Andre about Freddy's upward mobility) or deliberately over-exaggerated accents ("Like Zis/Like Zat"). There's even a predictable here's-what-we-learned 11 o'clocker for Butz and Lithgow titled, creatively, "Dirty Rotten Number."

Yazbek writes better for characters, with a pounding salute to materialism for Butz in "Great Big Stuff" and a shockingly gentle ballad for Lithgow in "Love Sneaks In." But his comedy numbers mostly misfire: Songs like "All About Ruprecht" (for Lawrence and Freddy to scare off Jolene), "What Was a Woman to Do?" (for Muriel and a bevy of Lawrence's other spurned fake romances) and "Love Is My Legs" for Freddy and Christine don't capture the characters as astutely as Lane's book, which nicely amplifies and expands the original Dale Launer-Stanley Shapiro-Paul Henning screenplay without subverting it.

But as the score is seldom well integrated with the book, the actors' opportunities are limited: Butz's raucous physical comedy and down-and-dirty portrayal energize Freddy, and Gleason overflows with comic charm in her utterly thankless role. But in look and sound, Lithgow is recreating his J.J. Hunsecker from Sweet Smell of Success, though he has much less to bite into here. Jbara and Scott occasionally bring their underdeveloped characters to life, but Gettelfinger is completely lost and ineffective in her hyper-inflated role.

Despite these problems, the show manages to entertain, even frequently, and it's never a chore to sit through. But the final effect is one of gears grinding rather than of effortless musical comedy beguilement, which is what a show like this really needs. The Producers demonstrates how a show can steal your heart while its central figures steal other characters' dollars, but how can Dirty Rotten Scoundrels effectively steal our hearts when it doesn't have one of its own?

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