Take a 1964 Marlon Brando-David Niven-Shirley Jones comedy (Bedtime Story), remake it in 1988 with a new title (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and an even funnier trio of leads (Steve Martin, Michael Caine, Glenne Headley), turn it into a 2005 Broadway musical starring John Lithgow, Norman Leo Butz, and Sheri Rene Scott which scored eleven Tony nominations and one big win for Best Actor Butz, then assign director extraordinaire Richard Israel to downscale it to 99-seat dimensions and you’ve got Interact Theatre Company’s sensational L.A. Intimate Theater Premiere of the hit musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, just opened at the NoHo Arts Center.

Israel’s track record with intimate stagings of big scale musicals is a stellar one. His vision of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins scored him an LA Weekly Theatre Award nomination as Best Director and his reinvention of Big The Musical won rave reviews from the Weekly, the Times, Backstage, and of course StageSceneLA.

Now Israel works his magic on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and the result is a production which comes miraculously close to matching the Broadway original in every way but size.  Stellar lead performances, standout supporting turns, an all-around splendid ensemble, spiffy choreography, top-notch musical direction, and a first-rate design make the arrival of an intimate Dirty Rotten Scoundrels a great big theatrical event.

Fans of the movie know the plot. Sophisticated con-artist Laurence Jameson, prowling the French Rivera in search of wealthy women to swindle, is persuaded to take crude upstart Freddy Benson under his wings and show him the ropes.  The arrival of “The American Soap Queen” Christine Colgate prompts the scoundrelly duo to make a deal:  The first to bilk Christine out of $50,000 gets exclusive rights to the Riviera and the other must pack his bags and get out of town. Laughs, romance, and surprises ensue.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrel’s Broadway musicalization features one of the funniest books in recent memory (Jeffrey Lane takes the best of screenwriters Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro, and Paul Henning’s dialog and adds his own touches), music by David Yazbeck (even better than his score for The Full Monty), and some of the cleverest lyrics in memory (by Yazbek again) adding up to a show that truly merits being called a musical comedy.  Take, for example, these lyrical gems:

From “What Was A Woman To Do”: “If music be he food of love, he ate my smorgasbord.”
From “Great Big Stuff”:  “Give me paisley silk pajamas, poker with Al Roker and our friend Lorenzo Lamas.”
From “Oklahoma?”:  “And the shade is mighty thin in Oklahoma. And our leading cause of death … is melanoma.”
From “Love Is My Legs”:  “Love is my legs and you are my love. So you are my legs, my love.”
From the title song: “It’s almost a religion—the need to take a pigeon and to play your part with elegance and zest.”

As Laurence, Chip Phillips makes an auspicious Los Angeles theater debut.  He’s got the look of silver-haired savoir faire, the charm of an expert ladies’ man, a fine singing voice, and tip-top comic timing. A perfectly cast and vocally swell Kelly Lohman (Hope in Interact’s 2006 Urinetown) is an all-around terrific Christine, blending all-American girl-next door prettiness and naiveté. Tracy Powell gets laughs—and one of the show’s best songs (“Oklahoma?”)—as Texas oil heiress Jolene Oakes.

Then there are Susan Hull and Michael Manuel as bilked-by-Laurence Muriel (of Omaha) and French police officer/Laurence henchman André, roles beefed up for Broadway to match the star status of Joanna Gleason and Gregory Jbarra.  Hull and Manuel give the Broadway originals a run for their money, she with her dry sophistication and he with his Gallic flair. The pair have great chemistry together, sing and dance with finesse, and make the upsizing of their roles one of the musical’s particular treats.

Completing the sextet of principals is the simply phenomenal Matt Wolpe as Freddy.  “Deliciously dirty” as the upstart conman, outrageously unrestrained as Laurence’s chromosome-deprived fictional brother Ruprect, and equally funny as a supposedly wheelchair-bound Army officer, Wolpe matches my memories of the wild brilliance of Butz’s Tony-winning performance.  Plus the guy can belt out the hilarious power ballad “Love Is My Legs” with the best of them.


Supporting the principal players is a multi-talented ensemble who work hard indeed for their 99-seat plan stipend. Steven Connor, James Benjamin Cooper, Ellen Dostal, Jessica Evans, Robert Briscoe Evans, Mark Fellnererez, Melanie Rockwell, and Sara J. Stuckey who not only sing, dance, and play a variety of roles but spend all their “free” moments executing multiple costume changes and transforming Dove Huntley and Rob Corn’s elegant, ingenious set from hotel lobby to bedroom to casino floor to dungeon and back.

There are about as many dance numbers as set and costume changes, all of them stylishly choreographed by Powell, the ensemble needing no more than a music cue to pop out on stage en masse and perform Powell’s lively dance moves as hoity-toity vacationers, hotel employees, or cowboys and cowgirls.

Musical director/pianist Johanna Kent does impeccable work conducting the show’s four piece orchestra (Mike Wachs on drums, Clyde Yasuhara on bass, and Patrick Burns on keyboards, clarinet and saxophone), the quartet performing virtually nonstop, as most of the action is underscored by a medley of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ best melodies.

Meagan Evers has costumed the cast in a seemingly endless variety of gowns, uniforms, Texas duds, tuxedos, and choir robes.  Carol Doehring’s lighting scores high marks as does Matt Richter’s sound design (the cast’s voices are virtually unamplified, yet can be heard quite clearly above the orchestra).  

Interact’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is Los Angeles theater at its best—and most unique-to-this-city, the 99-seat plan making L.A. the only place in the country where a mostly Equity cast can perform a major Broadway musical in an intimate space at affordable ticket prices. This is must-see theater, and not only for musical comedy aficionados. With its cheeky tone and outrageously funny dialog, lyrics, and plot twists, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is likely to appeal even to those who claim to hate musicals.  This one may well make them eat their hats. 

Interact Theatre Company, NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 

-Steven Stanley
February 12, 2010
                                                                           Photos: Michael Lamont

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