Two con-man musicals on Broadway? Who would have thought that Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, those theatrical scamps who bilk little old ladies in "The Producers," would be joined by Freddy Benson and Lawrence Jameson, a couple of scam artists working the French Riviera in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."
These new boys on the block are not quite in the same league as Max and Leo, but their shenanigans make for a reasonably entertaining time at the Imperial Theatre, where "Scoundrels" opened Thursday.
The show seems to have all the right ingredients: the steady hand of director Jack O'Brien, who worked wonders on "Hairspray"; several good tunes by composer David Yazbek of "Full Monty" fame; a steady supply of gags by book writer Jeffrey Lane; and, most notably, an exceptionally talented cast that includes John Lithgow, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott.
Yet "Scoundrels" never quite hits the giddy heights its predecessor climbed to with ease, and while it works very hard to do so, the effort shows.
The problem seems to lie with the uneven story, which is based on the .I 988 movie starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin. This stage version has a stop-and-go personality, telling several different tales of deception that interrupt each other and don't build to a satisfying conclusion.
That's not to say you won't have a good time, particularly when Butz is careering around the stage as Freddy, an obnoxious, slightly gone-to-seed elf.
Butz is a natural musical-comedy star, a genuine song-and-dance man, who knows how to fill the stage all by himself. And Yazbek gives him several juicy numbers in which he can shamelessly take over the show, particularly one song in which Freddy greedily imagines aLl the "Great Big Stuff" his capers will help him acquire.
In that modified rap, you get Yazbek's most persistent attempt at rigorous rhyming - somehow managing to link "Bahamas," "paisley silk pajamas" and "Lorenzo Lamas."
Lithgow's Lawrence, a fussy, preening aristocrat, is equally accomplished. The actor is a debonair, commanding fellow, and if his singing voice is more serviceable than sweet, no matter. He has charm to spare.
The two men work well together as a kind of Mutt-and-Jeff duo of crime. What these guys specialize in is separating wealthy women from their money, and Lane's meandering book focuses on three such ladies.
One is an Oklahoma oil heiress, played with twangy panache by Sara Gettelfinger. Her leggy presence gives talented choreographer Jerry Mitchell one of the show's few chances to cut loose with dancing, a spirited hoedown for her and a fine crew of two-steppers. Unfortunately, Gettelfinger's character disappears before the end of Act 1.
Number two is a wealthy woman from Omaha, portrayed with self-deprecating wit by the wonderful Joanna Gleason. The character gets sidetracked into a romance with a French police chief (Gregory Jbara), an affair that slows down the evening, despite Gleason's considerable panache.
Finally, there is the Cincinnati soap queen, Christine Colgate, portrayed by Scott with a divine ditsiness and vulnerability that recall the legendary Judy Holliday. Christine becomes a bet between the two crooks – which one of them can bilk $50,000 out of her?
Freddy pretends to be a wheelchair-bound soldier; Lawrence impersonates a Teutonic doctor determined to cure the soldier's paralysis. And, of course, both men fall in love with the appealing young woman.
The budding romance between Freddy and Christine provides the evening's best musical moment: "Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True," a facetious salute to all those dippy love songs that no bonafide musical can do without.
The action is played out in front of designer David Rockwell's postcard-thin settings, surprisingly mundane recreations of what should be a glamorous environment of gambling casinos, opulent hotel lobbies and Mediterranean beach front.
In the end, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is a mixed bag of a musical, but there's enough to be savored (especially that terrific cast), so you won't feel taken.
W.C. Fields had a rule: Never work with children or animals. Were he still alive, he'd probably add Norbert Leo Butz to the list.
As he showed once more in the super-smart new musical "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," which opened last night, any scene Butz can't steal isn't worth stealing.
Luckily for us, the rest of the fantastic cast - including Butz's co-stars, the ever-suave John Lithgow and the ever-effervescent Sherie Rene Scott - is up to his finger-pickin' ways and refuse to go along meekly with the heist.
The result is one of the liveliest, best-performed musicals in years. And the musical itself ain't chopped liver, either!
Based on the same-named 1988 movie starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" tells of a patrician English con artist, Lawrence Jameson (Lithgow) whose French Riviera territory is imperiled by a brash and vulgar young American, Freddy Benson (Butz).
The newcomer tries to apprentice himself to the old hand, but after a calamitously funny bout with a shallow-in-the-heart Oklahoman heiress (a delightfully wacky Sara Gettelfinger), Lawrence wants Freddy out of his con man's heaven.
Freddy refuses to go,
They settle upon a gentleman's agreement: The first man to con 50 grand out of the newest arrival, a bubbly soap-suds heiress named Christine Colgate (Scott), wins. The loser beats it out of town.
Jeffrey Lane's book, following closely on the heels of the screenplay, is currently the wittiest on Broadway, and David ("The Full Monty") Yazbek's happy music proves tunefully serviceable. Even if you go out merely humming Harold Wheeler's orchestrations, Yazbek's comic, sometimes camp, lyrics are positively inspired.
In every way, this is a superior musical - but what makes it one of the season's major Broadway players is every handsomely honed aspect of its production.
Jack O'Brien's masterly staging doesn't miss a trick, from its use of David Rockwell's imaginative settings and reg Barnes' apt and glamorous costumes, to its integration of Jerry Mitchell's pitch-perfect choreography and he subtle performances it draws out of the actors.
Lithgow – superior from fingertips to toenails, and imbued with an elegance that could shatter a looking-glass - finds the perfect foil in Butz's grotesquely bravura yet perversely charming cunning.
They are a stunning team. Indeed, watching the savvy way Lithgow lobs back Butz's virtuoso histrionics is one of Broadway's purest delights.
Backing them up are not only the adorable Scott as Christine and Gettelfinger as the crazy Oklahoman, but Gregory Jbara, equally impeccable as Andre, Lawrence's henchman (who handily doubles as the town's Chief of Police), and the giddily ditsy Joanna Gleason as the lady who becomes his love.
"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" may not be the most musical of musicals, but it certainly among the funniest, with a six-pack of energized performers delivering a knockout punch to Broadway's funnybone.
Is there room on Broadway for another odd couple of singing con men? On paper, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," which opened last night at the Imperial Theater, has an awful lot in common with the musical megahit "The Producers": a mismatched pair of scam artists (one a silky veteran, one a raw rookie); a long-legged blonde as a love interest for both fellows; a bubbly score; comic homages to showbiz classics; and the aim of vaulting over the lines of good taste whenever possible.
But if you are going to court comparison with giants, you had better be prepared to stand tall. "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," directed by Jack O'Brien and starring John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz as the title rogues, somehow never straightens out of a queasy slouch.
Though shot through with bawdy jokes, smirky innuendoes and a rowdy spirit of self-parody, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" seems to believe in its own brazen agenda only when Mr. Butz, a criminally talented young performer, is allowed to command the stage. And confidence, as any grifter can tell you, is the irreplaceable basis of a successful con game.
"Give them what they want," sings the preternaturally dapper Lawrence Jameson (Mr. Lithgow) in the show's opening number, of his vocation as a swindler of stinking-rich women in a Riviera resort. What the public wanted four years ago was "The Producers," Mel Brooks's blockbuster adaptation of his own movie about dirty dealings on Broadway. The glare cast by "The Producers" was so bright that another, more modest but eminently likable musical was thrust into the shadows.
The show was "The Full Monty," a sweet-natured tale of unemployed men who find their dignity in becoming strippers for a night, and its creators saw the brassier "Producers" wipe the floor with it at the Tony Awards and at the box office. Now much of the same creative team - director (Mr. O'Brien), songwriter (David Yazbek) and choreographer (Jerry Mitchell) - have returned with the mission of really giving Broadway audiences what they want this time.
The problem is that none of these truly gifted folks - and let me extend that description to embrace Mr. Lithgow and Sherie Rene Scott, who plays the pigeon waiting to be plucked - are in their natural element in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," adapted from the 1988 movie starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin. Mr. O'Brien, whose credits range improbably from the current "Hairspray" to the spectacular Lincoln Center production of "Henry IV" in 2003, may well be the American stage's most protean director these days.
But whether dealing with fat men in housecoats, Shakespearean barflies or clothes-shucking middle-aged schlemiels, Mr. O'Brien has always exuded a kindly courtesy toward the characters in his shows. The same glow emanated from Mr. Yazbek's score for "The Fully Monty" in songs that found a charming pop lyricism in blue-collar malaise.
With "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," which has a book by Jeffrey Lane, Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Yazbek seem to be saying: "O.K., world, you want showbiz razzle-dazzle? We can do that. You want shameless? We'll give you that, too." So out come the ribald puns; the scatological and sex jokes; the undulating, overdressed chorus lines; and a hard-sell title song underlined in brass.
At the same time, the show respectfully follows the formulas of the Golden-Age book musical, right down to a comic romantic subplot for two eccentric supporting characters (Gregory Jbara, trapped in a French accent, as a crooked police chief and Joanna Gleason as a swinging American divorcée in a wardrobe of spoof status clothes designed by Gregg Barnes). And like "The Producers," it pauses now and again for self-conscious winks at progenitors like "My Fair Lady" and "Oklahoma!"
What's missing is the galvanizing, hypnotizing energy that might make you forget that these ingredients appear to have been assembled according to an oft-checked shopping list for a borrowed recipe. There is equally little evidence of the one thing that no successful double con act can do without, chemistry between its two perpetrators. In this case, that means Mr. Lithgow's rakish Lawrence and Mr. Butz's Freddy, a happy vulgarian in search of some class.
Chemistry wasn't a problem in Frank Oz's film of 17 years ago, which traded on its audience's existing awareness of the star personae of Mr. Caine (suave, deadpan, devilish) and Mr. Martin (antic, goofy, outrageous). Though he won a Tony playing a nastier kind of smoothie in "Sweet Smell of Success," the ill-fated musical of 2002, Mr. Lithgow is most comfortable looking perplexed and deferential onstage, as he did in the drama "M. Butterfly." (For the record, he can be a first-rate movie villain.)
With a wavy coif and outlined eyes that give him the epicene look of a 1920's movie idol, Mr. Lithgow gamely preens and postures as the vain, guileful Lawrence, the crook deluxe of the French seaside gambling town of Beaumont-sur-Mer. (As designed by David Rockwell, the town bears a been-there resemblance to the Riviera landscape in the current revival of "La Cage aux Folles.")
But you can feel the strain behind Mr. Lithgow's performance, especially when he has to be extravagantly wicked or daring. Though he does fine by a Rex Harrison-style patter number, he is most at home in a wistful, wispy ballad Lawrence sings in the second act.
A quality of eager impersonation also infuses the performance of Ms. Scott (of the original Broadway cast of "Aida") as Christine Colgate, the ostensibly sweet and klutzy target of the show's central scam. (A bombshell blonde with a big voice, she's a gladiola pretending to be a shrinking violet.) But Mr. Butz, who single-handedly made the unfortunate "Thou Shalt Not" bearable a few years back, is definitely the real thing.
The possessor of a Puckish face and a Buddha belly, Mr. Butz also has the ability to switch on at will a vocal and comic power that jolts an audience to attention. "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" most noticeably comes to life with Freddy's self-introductory number, "Great Big Stuff," an inspired parody of the hip-hop odes to the materialism of music videos.
"Great Big Stuff" elicits Mr. Yazbek's sophisticated knack, much needed on Broadway, for both satirizing and exploiting top-40 musical sensibilities. It's a skill that is also gleefully evident in a syrupy second-act duet for Freddy and Christine that brings to mind those tonsil-stretching romantic movie theme songs from the 1980's. And the show's climactic number, its title song, is aggressively catchy enough to bring down the house. There is also an unbearably shrill hoe-down number performed by Sara Gettelfinger as an heiress from Oklahoma.
Otherwise, Mr. Yazbek's score brings to mind the sort of 1960's pop melodies of Henry Mancini (especially those written for caper flicks) and Burt Bacharach that live on translated into elevator music. They are tunes that simmer softly in the background, which is not what this kind of musical requires. The lyrics, also by Mr. Yazbek, drop a lot of brand names and are cheerfully, clunkily cheesy. ("If music be the food of love, he ate my smorgasbord," sings Ms. Gleason, whose delivery throughout is so deadpan as to verge on posthumous.)
This tone is, it should be noted, of a piece with the carefully structured script by Mr. Lane, who appears to be under obligation to keep the corn flying as if it were tornado season in Kansas in August. ("Her people are in oil." "Crude?" "Well, she is a little pushy.")
Summing up his friend and rival Freddy in the play's final scene, Lawrence observes, "What you lack in grace, you certainly make up for in vulgarity." These would appear to be words to live by for the creators of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." But the show just doesn't have the self-belief, not to mention the oomph, that can make vulgarity a fine art.
It has been a long time coming, but the 2004-05 season finally has a big new musical that Broadway can feel unashamed - heck, thrilled - to call its own. "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," which opened last night at the Imperial Theatre, is a sweet-natured yet droll, dorky but gorgeous, wholesome yet raunchy and somehow sophisticated adaptation of the beloved Michael Caine-Steve Martin movie about con men in the south of France.
The show is a comedy caper, which means it is about little more than high style, great shoes, intrigue and a mad streak as wide as the waves in John Lithgow's hilarious silver-blond toupee. Jack O'Brien, that daredevil director of such musical gumballs as "Hairspray" and the most demanding Tom Stoppard dramas, has reassembled most of the creative team from "The Full Monty" for another grab at the spotlight it lost to "The Producers" in 2001.
David Yazbek's score is smart, endearing, often wildly amusing, and "smooth and breezy," as he says in the opening song, "Give Them What They Want." Beneath the Broadway and pop conventions, we sense him winking at giants all the way back to Cole Porter.
Yazhek, a TV and film composer whose first show was "The Full Monty," has become even better at changing styles and writing in the voices of the characters. His choral work - often little more than "doodah" - is startlingly beautiful. And his lyrics - rhyming Oklahoma with melanoma, and bichon frisk with DNA - are as witty as they are often unprintable.
It is past time to bring up Norbert Leo Butz, whose portrayal of Freddy, the penny-ante American grifter, is cuddly and dangerous - picture Mickey Rourke as adorable. Butz has been the show's big news since its tryout last summer at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. But anyone who admired him in "Thou Shalt Not," "The Last 5 Years" and "Wicked" can feel smug about being there first.
Although the entire cast is beyond lovely - and Lithgow is a hoot - Butz ratchets up the stakes as a deceptively sloppy swindler (played by Martin in the movie). Until he meets Lawrence (Lithgow), an old-school con man, Freddy bilks lonely women with surplus capital by telling sad stories about his granny and pretending he can afford only root vegetables. After he blackmails Lawrence to teach him some class - "Pygmalion," anyone? - he helps his reluctant mentor out of a romantic jam by pretending to he his oversexed idiot brother, then competes with the master by faking paralysis.
Butz - all snub nose and uninhibited nervous system - can slide down banisters and fake seizures while eating beef jerky. When this wheelchair-bounder falls for Christine, "the American soap queen," Butz and the earthily voluptuous, reedy-voiced Sherie Rene Scott pull off a fabulously grandiose schlock-pop duet, "Love Is My Legs," a Lordy-I-can-walk screamer with such lyrics as "you are the feetbones of love," complete with a background chorus holding candles.
Lithgow is about as debonair as a big duck in a dinner jacket as the character created by Caine in the shadow of David Niveu. Lawrence usually pretends to be a disguised prince - or "prance," as they say in this fractured France -but when Lawrence pretends to be an Austrian doctor, his accent is no more laughable than the one meant to be British.
Lithgow talks the songs as much as he sings them, which doesn't hurt a bit, and, as the fake doctor singing about the Hippocratic oath, repeatedly whacks his competition with a well-miked stick.
Joanna Gleason is blissfully elegant and foolish as a bored, rich American. The woman is so nice that we're relieved to see her left unhumiliated by the con man's French assistant, played with dignity and charming silliness by Gregory Jbara. In Jeffrey Lane's cheerful but never stupid book, Gleason recalls that, as a child, she prayed, "Let me have love unending, let me look good in shorts."
Everyone looks better than good in Gregg Barnes' costumes, especially the good-humored chorus with legs up to their armpits in the grown-up evening dresses for Jelly Mitchell's dreamy ballroom choreography. David Rockwell's sets are enchanted French Riviera fantasies, with jewels on the leaves of the potted palms and, in the master's villa, an enormous tapestry of a fox stalking peacocks. Wish we were there.
If musical comedy is dead, as several of its biggest champions have persuasively argued, then some people are having a swell time dancing on its grave.
That's the chief message offered by Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (* * 1/2 out of four), the latest winking adaptation of a popular film to woo Broadway audiences. Scoundrels, which opened Thursday at the Imperial Theatre, is the baby of composer/lyricist David Yazbek, director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell -the same team behind the winking adaptation of The Full Monty. It's based on the 1988 movie starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine as con men with conflicting styles.
The true model for this new show, though, is The Producers, that high-links-laden hit that officially brought the curtain down on the Andrew Lloyd Webber era of reverence and bombast. The enduring lesson of Mel Brooks smash is that in the new millennium, the surest way to stage a hit musical is to make fun of musicals - along with anything or anyone else likely to strike a chord with contemporary theatergoers.
In Scoundrels, that includes the French, Donald Trump and even arena rock, via an overheated romantic duet performed while ensemble members wave lighters in unison. Yazbek's cleverly constructed songs nod to Burt Bacharach, Louis Prima and Weird Al Yankovic, revealing an equal flair for wry wordplay and gross-out humor, Jeffrey Lane's book is similarly deft in sending up the scampish subjects and their petty preoccupations.
What the show lacks, for all its drollness, is a set of characters or situations worth caring about. As much of current pop culture proves, it's easier and more instantly gratifying to mock hollowness than to challenge it. The problem with relentless sarcasm, though, is that it tends to make any emotional engagement suspect. When John Lithgow, playing the confirmed cad Lawrence Jameson, confesses his growing feelings for a young woman in the affecting ballad Love Sneaks In, what should be a tender moment seems incongruously sentimental.
Thanks to O'Brien and his cast, Scoundrels maintains a high entertainment quotient. In addition to Lithgow, who lends his usual effortless panache, it includes Norbert Leo Butz, turning in a game, giddy performance as Freddy Benson, the younger and rawer of the scoundrels.
Sherie Rene Scott has less to work with as the seemingly guileless blonde whom Freddy and Lawrence vie for, but she contributes a sweet presence and a tangy voice. And the always excellent Joanna Gleason sails through the part of a desperately determined divorcee.
But in the end, like its title characters, Scoundrels is apt to leave you feeling titillated but somehow cheated.