Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 9, 2005
Nestled among the multitudinous producers' credits in the playbill for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are such names as David Belasco and the Entire Prussian Army. The whole marketing campaign for this new musical comedy has been focused around its con-man heroes: a good-natured, exaggerated bait-and-switching to prepare audiences for the merry mischief that the show's eponymous crooks cook up. I like it: it's cheeky and fun. And for the first hour or so, so is the show itself.
Unfortunately, things fall apart in Act Two, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels never quite recovers. In a season that has thus far given us Brooklyn, Dracula, and Little Women, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels—tuneful, funny, peppy, generally well-crafted—is a breath of fresh air. But alas, it's just a breath: it doesn't even work up to being a light breeze. I don't think it's quite got the stuff to satisfy my longing for a genuinely terrific new musical comedy on Broadway.
But it's a step in the right direction. I pretty much loved the first act. The show begins by introducing us to Lawrence Jameson (John Lithgow), a middle-aged con man who has made a living, for a long time now, cheating rich ladies out of their money on the Riviera. His secret is revealed in the title of the opening number—"Give Them What They Want." What they seem to want at the moment is to spend time in the company of ravished nobility: Jameson is impersonating a prince (of an undesignated country) who is involved in a revolution (equally vague). His most recent conquest is dotty Muriel Eubanks; but he's setting his sights on a newer, if not necessarily bigger, fish, Oklahoma oil heiress Jolene Oakes.
At the same time, Jameson has to deal with an unwelcome guest, a fellow crook named Freddy Benson (Norbert Leo Butz). Freddy and Lawrence meet on a train, and shortly afterward Freddy turns up, Eliza Doolittle-like, on Lawrence's doorstep, determined to learn all he can about the con game from the master. Thanks to a little blackmail, Freddy gets Lawrence to agree to the project, and the transformation begins. It's not particularly successful, but Freddy turns out to be very useful to Lawrence in his scamming of Jolene. After which, the two decide not to join forces, but to compete for a $50,000 purse—the one that belongs to naive American blonde beauty Christine Colgate, who has just arrived at the boys' hotel, apparently loaded.
Now, all of this happens in about an hour; an hour filled with delicious and colorful musical numbers and dance sequences and lots of silly, airy dialogue (with the occasional broad and/or gross joke thrown in for good measure). We meet ditzy Muriel in a goofy number called "What Was a Woman To Do?" which is put over by Joanna Gleason with such guileless panache that it's impossible not to love her. The transformation of Freddy is accomplished in two comic tour de forces—a rap called "Great Big Stuff," in which Butz almost stops the show, and then a hilariously busy song called "Chimp in a Suit" in which choreographer Jerry Mitchell keeps the chorus hopping all over the stage, spinning the set round and round with dizzying and ebullient glee.
Sara Gettelfinger, who plays Jolene, leads the ensemble in the rousing faux-Country & Western ditty "Oklahoma?" (which explodes into a lively line dance), and immediately thereafter joins Butz and Lithgow in the giddy, silly "All About Ruprecht," in which Butz cavorts around the stage in his boxer shorts and does a number of disgusting things, much to the audience's delight.
Christine's entrance at the hotel is occasion for yet another deluxe song and dance number, this one called "Here I Am," in which Sherie Rene Scott gets the first of several moments to shine. There's even a (kind-of) love song for Scott and Butz near the end of Act I called "Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True," which is a hummable tune reminiscent of Golden Age musical comedy standards.
Throughout, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels keeps its tongue planted firmly in its cheek and its eye on the sole objective of tickling its audience's fancy without ever taking anything the least bit seriously. Characters break the fourth wall constantly; Gleason's last line in the antic Act I finale is something to the effect that she has checked back in to the hotel because she's sure she'll be needed in Act II. It is light-hearted and light-headed: to borrow a song title from one of this season's more misbegotten entries, it's fun, fun, fun.
And then, after intermission, the tenor of the thing changes. O'Brien and his collaborators—notably book-writer Jeffrey Lane and composer-lyricist David Yazbek—seem determined to stick to the story at all costs. Attention focuses on the competition between Freddy and Lawrence for Christine's money (and, evidently, heart: Lawrence even sings a song called "Love Sneaks In" in which he professes sincere admiration). I'm all for heart, but this particular show screeches to a halt when it tries to accommodate it; so, too, does the ingenuous goodwill dissipate into mean-spirited slapstick and vulgarity as the plot takes center stage. It's funny if you like that sort of thing, but it's never charming. The story hurtles on toward an end that is very predictable, even if, like me, you haven't seen the movie.
There's a last gasp of the know-how that makes Act I so wonderful in the 11-o'clock song "Dirty Rotten Number." But mostly the show has run out of steam long before the curtain rings down. Lithgow's performance, which is very funny most of the time, does too; Butz's turn is terrific but finally fails to show off his range very impressively. Scott is probably best-served by the material, and she's spectacularly good. Even better is Joanna Gleason, luminous and daffy as ever in a role that's too small for her talents; Gregory Jbara, who plays a French police officer (Pickering to Lithgow's Henry Higgins, sort of) is also fine, but underused.
Mitchell's dancers come off nicely, but they're mostly missing from the second act as well. His choreography is witty and sublime throughout; with his work on La Cage aux Folles he's emerging this season as one of the theatre's invaluable pros. The show looks great: sleek sets (David Rockwell), chic costumes (Gregg Barnes), and buoyant lighting (Kenneth Posner) contribute merrily to the ambience.
So here's the scorecard: On the one hand (and to employ the kind of hype that it debunks so brilliantly when it's at its best), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is indisputably the best new musical on Broadway so far this season. On the other hand, I left feeling let-down and disappointed. I hate to be picky, but what can I say? The magic combination of gossamer, glitter, and humbug—or whatever it is that a great musical comedy is created from—doesn't quite do what it needs to here.