Few 21st-century musicals have put the Comedy back into Musical Comedy like Best Musical Tony nominee Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, at long last getting the big-stage professional production SoCal musical theater lovers have been waiting for since its National Tour stopped at the Pantages a full decade ago, and what a production it is thanks to the Musical Comedy Pros at Musical Theatre West.
Based on the 1964 Marlon Brando-David Niven-Shirley Jones flick Bedtime Story (remade in 1988 as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with an even funnier Steve Martin, Michael Caine, and Glenne Headley), Dirty Rotten Soundrels The Musical hit Broadway in 2005, scoring a grand total of eleven Tony nominations (including noms for stars John Lithgow and Sherie Rene Scott) and a great big win for Best Actor Norbert Leo Butz in the Brando/Martin role.
Like the pair of motion pics that preceded it, Broadway’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels introduces us to sophisticated con-artist extraordinaire Laurence Jameson (Davis Gaines at MTW), busy as always prowling the French Rivera in search of wealthy bilkable women.
After successfully seducing wealthy divorcee Muriel of Omaha (Cynthia Ferrer) out of her family jewels, Lawrence happens upon swindler wannabe Freddy Benson (Benjamin Schrader), whose hilariously crude powers of persuasion convince the older man to show him the con-man ropes, a “deliciously low, horribly dirty” Eliza Doolittle to Lawrence’s debonair Henry Higgins.
Later, when Lawrence finds himself inconveniently engaged to Oklahoma oil heiress Jolene Oakes (Jennifer Kranz), a cowgal for whom “No way” is no kind of answer, it’s the less experienced Freddy who comes to the rescue, leaving Lawrence in quite a pickle: how to rid himself once and for all of the upstart pretender to his King Of Scoundrels crown.
The arrival of “American Soap Queen” Christine Colgate (Rebecca Ann Johnson) provides Lawrence with the inspiration for a deal he knows Freddy can’t refuse. The first dirty rotten scoundrel to finesse Christine out of $50,000 gets exclusive rights to the Riviera and the other gets a one-way ticket to El Monte.
Laughter, romance, surprises, and PG-13 raunch ensue.
Featuring one of the most hilarity-packed 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 morsels 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,” Dirty Rotten Scoundrel’s Broadway musicalization scores high on every count.
And it scores even higher at MTW thanks to Billy Sprague, Jr.’s snappy direction, his pizzazzy choreography, sets and costumes that are among MTW’s best, and above all pitch-perfect performances that give the Broadway originals’ a run for their pilfered money.
Gaines could not be better cast than he is as Lawrence, a role he invests with supreme sophistication, gorgeous pipes, and a deliciously dry humor that allows his partner in crime to take the more colorful role and steal scene after scene after scene.
Over-the-top/subtly brilliant as Freddy, Schrader is one singular sensation from his very first entrance, and never more so than when 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.
Adding another stunning leading lady star turn to her star-studded résumé as Christine, Johnson proves herself a sexy-edged all-American comedienne-next-door who can belt out high notes with the best of them.
Southland treasure Ferrer’s simply fabulous Muriel duets “Like Ziz, Like Zat” with Kyle Nudo’s French police officer André, the twosome’s cross-cultural romance making Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ B-plot a spicy one.
Completing the cast of principals is triple-threat 2014 Trojan grad Kranz, a Scenie-winning Christine at USC, this time round a hoot and a holler as rip-roaring rodeo gal Jolene, whose high-energy “Oklahoma?” scores laughs and whoops in equal measure.
And speaking of triple-threats, ensembles don’t get more Broadway caliber than Nichole Beeks, Rachel Burcham, dance captain Katie DeShan, Marisa Field, Chris Holly, Natalie Iscovich, Brandon Taylor Jones, Daniel Kermidas, Katie McConaughy, Nick Morganella, Adrian Mustain, Gabriel Navarro, Tiffany Reid, Elijah Reyes, and Matthew Thurmond as assorted happily bilked victims of Lawrence’s persuasive charms, hoity-toity vacationers, hotel employees, high-stepping cowboys and cowgirls, and more.
As always, John Glaudini merits high marks as music director and as conductor of MTW’s Broadway-caliber pit orchestra
Scenic designer Kevin Clowes gives MTW’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels a sleek European elegance lit to burnished perfection by Jean-Yves Tessier and enhanced by Katie Marshall’s just-right props, Karen St. Pierre’s colorful costumes (provided by The Theatre Company), and Michael Greene’s stylish wigs. Audio Production Geeks, LLC’s mostly excellent sound design did feature a few mike and mix glitches in need of fixing at Sunday’s performance.
Carol Bentley is associate director/choreographer. Lurie Horns Pfeffer is stage manager and Mary Ritenhour assistant stage manager.
I called this past April’s Sister Act “the most all-around entertaining Musical Theatre West premiere in years.” The highest praise I can bestow on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is that Lawrence and Freddy give Mother Superior and Sister Deloris a run for their habits every step of the way.
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
July 10, 2106
Photos: Caught In The Moment Photography