`Scoundrels' has honest laughs

Critic's Corner//Theater Review

November 30, 2006|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which opened amid a spate of other musicals based on movies, was overshadowed on Broadway - despite 11 nominations, it was shut out at the 2005 Tony Awards. But as the touring production at the Hippodrome reaffirms, the show is a solid, old-fashioned musical comedy, with the emphasis on comedy. If you don't laugh out loud at least a couple of times, you're simply not paying attention.

The script, adapted by Jeffrey Lane from the 1988 Michael Caine-Steve Martin movie, focuses on a pair of con artists plying their trade on the French Riviera. Accentuating this humorous source material are 18 songs by David Yazbek (The Full Monty) that range from witty to rude.

The rapport between the two main characters is crucial to the show's success, and under Jack O'Brien's direction, Tom Hewitt, as suave Lawrence Jameson, and Timothy Gulan, as coarse Freddie Benson, make a fine pair.

FOR THE RECORD - A review of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in the Today section yesterday erroneously reported that the musical did not win any Tony Awards. The show won one Tony - a best actor award for Norbert Leo Butz.

"Rapport," however, is probably the wrong word, because these characters are rivals. Indeed, the plot concerns a bet they make to decide who will control business in this resort town, which was exclusively Lawrence's until Freddie showed up. (A new opening number written for the tour, "The Only Game in Town," helps establish Lawrence's turf, though it's less lively than its Broadway predecessor, "Give Them What They Want.") The terms of the bet are these: The men will choose a vulnerable heiress, and whoever swindles her out of $50,000 wins.

The con men's stylistic differences provide much of the humor. With silvery hair and a continental manner, Hewitt's Lawrence is a gentlemanly mixture of Cary Grant, Rex Harrison and Maurice Chevalier.

In contrast, Freddie is a hick, penny-ante grifter, and Gulan displays a gift for physical comedy in depicting the character's klutziness. Just watch him wage a losing battle against a recalcitrant piece of beef jerky, which literally floors him. Or later, when Freddie poses as an army sergeant recovering from psychosomatic paralysis - in the show's zaniest number, "Love Is My Legs" - watch him take his first, awkward steps by leaning forward and pulling on his shoelaces to propel each foot.

As Freddie's role-playing suggests, the show makes the most of the con artist's practice of adopting different personas. Lawrence, for example, starts out impersonating a deposed prince and then becomes a sadistic Austrian psychiatrist. Their marks are intended to be seen as transparent foils, and Laura Marie Duncan is adorable as Christine Colgate, the "sweet" American Soap Queen the men select as the patsy for their bet.

The musical includes a subplot about a romance between Lawrence's aide-de-camp, who happens to be the local police chief, and one of Lawrence's past conquests, a goofy but gutsy do-gooder. Drew McVety and Hollis Resnik revel in these roles, hitting their ribald peak in a rumpled morning-after scene in which they struggle valiantly to hide their passion.

The show also includes an amusing smattering of self-referential bits. In one case, a chorus member appears as an usher; in another, Christine pops up in the orchestra pit, replacing the conductor. Then there's Freddie's reaction as he watches the staircase in Lawrence's villa revolve. "Oh, my God, the whole thing turns!" he exclaims.

This effect, which involves a turntable, is typical of designer David Rockwell's grand-scale scenery, which replicates his Broadway set. The cost of touring with this set led to the producers' decision to put the show on hiatus next month while it undergoes downsizing. (The first week of the Baltimore run was also eliminated.)

In his first number, Gulan's Freddie sings of his desire for "Great Big Stuff" (" ... that would make me very happy"). Hippodrome audiences will be among the last to see how big that stuff really is. And, this show should make them very happy, too.


>>>Dirty Rotten Scoundrels continues through Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. $29-$74. 410-547-SEAT or BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com

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