The Relevant Stage, which bills itself as San Pedro’s Musical Theatre Company, has come a long way since Bat Boy, its freshman offering of a year and a half ago. Though its current production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels qualifies more as high-end community theater than as a fully professional staging of the Tony Award-winning hit, there are enough good to excellent performances (plus the show’s terrific songs and absolutely hilarious book) to make this an entertaining two and a half hours of wild and crazy fun.


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels began its life as a 1964 Marlon Brando-David Niven-Shirley Jones comedy (Bedtime Story), remade in 1988 with a new title (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and an even funnier trio of leads (Steve Martin, Michael Caine, Glenne Headley), then turned 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.

Fans of the movie(s) 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 ever (by Yazbek again), adding up to a show that truly merits being called a musical comedy.

The Relevant Stage founder and producing artistic director Ray Buffer has cast himself as Lawrence, a part that fits him to a T. The burly six-footer has a great look for the role, a fine singing voice, and excellent comic timing. A mostly excellent Kenny Taylor is at his best when Freddy is playing one of the pair of outrageous characters the book writers have him impersonate, doing scene-stealing work as the oh-so bizarre Ruprecht and as a wheelchair-bound soldier paralyzed from the waist down by “dance fever.” Though the role of André calls for an actor a good twenty years older than brand-new AMDA grad John Paul Batista, the young triple-threat gives the part his all in a charming performance that shows real promise. Kristin Towers-Rowles is a sexy, sensational Muriel, and she would have been just as right for Christine, a part that goes here to Michelle Zelina, a recent AMDA graduate who doesn’t quite have what it takes to make the role work. Scene stealer Leigh Golden holds nothing back as Jolene, her squeals alone making the part a winner, and that’s before she launches into Jolene’s signature number, “Oklahoma?”, and brings down the house.

A show like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels deserves a bigger ensemble than The Relevant Stage’s six, especially in a theater as cavernous as the historic Warner Grand, whose movie palace dimensions and ornate interior (think of it as a “smaller” version of the Pantages) lead one to expect a National Tour size-and-caliber production on its stage. Also, only in school musicals should Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ ensemble tracks be played by performers as young as five of the six. That is not to put down Beth Benedict, Romel Desilva, Melissa Fong, Jeremy Hitch, Valerie Ruel, and Minerva Schott, all of whom do commendable work here, but except for Ruel, they either are or look too young for their tracks.

Director Lindsey Lee Taylor shares credit for the production’s many fine performances, and her choreography is bright and bouncy. Dr. Jeannette-Louise Yaryan deserves high marks for her musical direction. (Yarnyan appears to be playing live keyboard in the pit to preprogrammed tracks, the resulting sound actually quite a good stand-in for a small pit orchestra.) Costumes by Kara McLeod are the show’s best design element, though Phil Buono deserves credit for an ingenious set design that fills the Warner Grand stage and transforms itself into several different locations with the simple rotation of a number of triangular panels. (Those used for Ruprecht’s dungeon are particularly clever.) Richard Taylor’s lighting design is very good as well. Victor Prudeaux is sound designer. Jack Molisani is stage manager. The mostly female ensemble members deserve extra points for moving lots and lots of furniture, some of it quite heavy looking.

Though not the disaster that Bat Boy’s sound amplification proved (uniform, professional mikes are now sported by everyone in the cast), sound problems have not disappeared. Mikes that don’t work, volume that is not uniformly adjusted (Zelina’s was turned up way too high), and overall voice and accompaniment sound mixing need to be improved even more for future productions.

All in all I enjoyed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The material is great and there were enough good to terrific performances to make me look forward to seeing a number of these actors again. The Relevant Stage is heading in the right direction, and with the huge pool of Southern California talent, there is reason to expect more improvement in the future from San Pedro’s Musical Theatre Company.

Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th Street in San Pedro.

–Steven Stanley
June 13, 2010

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