The multi-talented student triple-threats of USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory are back onstage again in their latest student-directed, designed, and performed musical hit, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and though its lead characters are indeed the dirtiest of scoundrels, there’s nothing at all rotten about MTR’s latest Broadway-to-blackbox gem. Quite the contrary, there’s not a more sensationally performed 99-seat musical now playing in all L.A.
Based on 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), Dirty Rotten Soundrels became a great big 2005 Broadway musical hit starring John Lithgow, Norman Leo Butz, and Sheri Rene Scott, one which scored eleven Tony nominations and one big win for Best Actor Butz.
Movie/Broadway buffs know the plot. Sophisticated con-artist Laurence Jameson (Andrew Schmidt), prowling the French Rivera in search of wealthy women to swindle, is persuaded to take crude upstart Freddy Benson (Drew Klopfer) under his wings and show him the ropes. The arrival of “The American Soap Queen” Christine Colgate (Jennifer Kranz) 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), hysterical morcels like “If music be the food of love, he ate my smorgasbord” and “Give me paisley silk pajamas, poker with Al Roker and our friend Lorenzo Lamas.”
The production’s supremely imaginative director Brandon Baer, its creatively gifted choreographer Sarah Fanella, and music director extraordinaire Anthony Lucca cue the audience in from the get-to that something special is about to take place with the 12-piece onstage student orchestra* as pitch-perfect as professionals and the show’s 10-member ensemble launching into the first of many inventively choreographed, sparklingly performed song-and-dance sequences. And then we meet our two stars.
With a suaveness and sophistication belying his age, Schmidt (a Featured Actor Scenie winner for The Most Happy Fella) gives Broadway’s Lithgow a run for his money, and has a gorgeous baritone to boot.
As his partner in crime, the upstart conman Freddy, an irrepressible Klopfer dazzles and delights, whether impersonating Laurence’s chromosome-deprived fictional brother Ruprect or a supposedly wheelchair-bound Army officer whose hilarious power ballad “Love Is My Legs” is but one of many show-stoppers. Together, the duo could not be a more perfect match.
Leading lady Kranz has precisely the right girl-next-door prettiness and Reese Witherspoon likeability to fit Christine Colgate to a T. Add to that terrific vocals and comedic chops to rival her leading men and you’ve got another Trojan talent to watch.
Adrienne Visnic (Schmidt’s Scenie-winning romantic partner in TMHF) adds another splendid performance to her repertoire in a deliciously winning supporting turn as wealthy divorcee Muriel (of Omaha) opposite an equally delightful Erik Vogt-Nilsen as French police officer/Laurence henchman André. Together, the twosome are simply too ooh-la-la for words.
And speaking of that show-stopping ensemble, Tucker Aust, Henry Boyd, Molly Chiffer, Arielle Fishman, Erik Hu, Brooke Lewis, Sami Nye, Kevin Paley, Carlye Porrazzo, and Sanford Reed are standouts each and every one in multiple tracks (as hoity-toity vacationers, hotel employees, or cowboys and cowgirls) that give each his or her spotlight moment.
Scenic designer Selby Souza makes the most of a shoestring budget to take us from hotel lobby to bedroom to casino floor to dungeon and back. Costume designer Marly Hall has created one snazzy outfit after another, too many to possibly count. Austin Allen’s lighting design adds greatly to the production’s visual flair. Danielle Kisner gets top marks for her sound design as well.
Vicki Pearlman is assistant director/stage manager and Lea Branyan is production stage manager. Nathan Heldman is assistant musical director. Madigan Stehly is technical director, Summer Grubaugh prop coordinator, and Alice Pollitt production manager. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is produced by Fishman and Paley.
Musical Theatre Repertory runs are short and intensive—seven performances in a mere four days, with only two to go, both of them sold out. Los Angeles musical theater buffs could do no better than check out future MRT offerings. As Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and its predecessors have made abundantly clear, these Trojan kids are more than all right.
Massman Theatre at USC.
October 12, 2013
.*Austin Chanu, Dan Fox, Nathan Heldman, Corbin Jones, Isaac López, Ryan McDiarmid, Miles Nuzzi, Rob Sheppard, Ethan Sherman, Austin Shaw, and Elena Sloman