Theater Review: “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”
Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain may be going broke, but you may be too if you ever win an all-expenses paid trip to Europe and find yourself in the company of two seemingly innocent, suave gentlemen: one a Euro chic prince, the other an American paraplegic sweetheart. Just don’t fall for any of their faux philanthropic causes, or else you’ll find yourself loveless on a train headed out to the left or to the right of the French Alps.
While not in sync with the contemporary trend of substantial, emotion driven musicals, David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane’s 2005 musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels–now getting its Richmond premiere produced by Barksdale Theatre–genuflects to the 1988 comedy film of the same name starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine about two fraudsters scamming a slew of wealthy American women. This movie turned into a musical doesn’t have the rock-infused stamina of Rent or either the Pulitzer-Prize winning character of Next To Normal. It definitely appeals more to senior citizen sensibilities with its homage to middle age humor and romance than it does to modern, younger audiences.
On the other hand, while we’re used to naughty behavior more on Wall Street than we are in the romanticized Mediterranean coast, there’s an immediate cultural relevancy about seeing a musical focalized on two con artists defrauding vacationers up and down the French Riviera as nonchalantly as Bernie Madoff plotting his Ponzi-scheme. Lawrence (Jeff McCarthy) and Freddy (Scott Wichmann) calibrate their personal ethics as frequently as they switch from one Armani suit to the next, jet setting from this European principality to another, and so forth.
Yet, for all its mishigas about hiring a nationally recognized Broadway actor and unexpectedly postponing the show’s official opening by a week to polish it up (…er, I hope Spiderman hasn’t started a regional fad), this summer musical doesn’t live up to its promotional hype. Director Chase Kniffen’s night on the French Riviera comes close to tasting like yesterday’s French baguette (good, but almost stale) in Act I. Luckily, his directorial hand holds a full house in Act II, but it’s still no royal flush. I guess no one hits the bullseye with the first arrow, at least not in Kniffen’s game of French roulette.
That’s not to say this production is egregiously off-putting: a full house is a full house (literally–the Empire Theatre was sold out). There is a profusion of “gotcha” jokes to laugh about. Scott Wichmann is great at using profanity, and at touching his private parts and he can rap with some real street cred in “Great Big Stuff.” Considering his character suffers from a Napoleon complex and he has to compensate by being overly vulgar and one-upping Lawrence in a bet to swindle $50,000 out of Christine (Rachel Abrams), he upstages the Broadway actor–Jeff McCarthy–but Wichmann’s naturally more charismatic anyway. Andre (Joe Pabst) and Muriel’s (Robin Arthur) romantic fling gets kinky in the bedroom (…offstage, of course) and they play their subplot off well in “Like Zis/Like Zat.”
However, there’s so much more to quibble about. For starters, scenic designer Brian C. Barker’s set is wobbly, and in “What Was A Woman to Do?” I was nervous for Robin Arthur’s personal safety as the balcony shifted back and forth precariously. Secondly, director Kniffen has placed such a predominant emphasis on having his characters use accents–both foreign and American– that in the telling words of the elderly woman behind me: “Everything is just so muffled!”
The smothered dialogue becomes this production’s greatest liability and this cast struggles from start to finish: Jeff McCarthy sounds like he has a lateral French lisp and you can’t translate a word he says or sings from scene to scene–but he has an authentic Austrian accent when pretending to be Dr. Shuffhausen, and a nice, beguiling smile. Nicole Oberleitner’s overly exaggerated Oklahoma accent as oil heiress Jolene doesn’t get the laughs she’s clearly set out to elicit. If there’s any element that needs immediate remediation in this production, it is to up the enunciation and mitigate the accents.
Due to Act I’s pervasively loud acoustics and two to three leads who could use advanced vocal lessons, its finale “The Miracle” was by no means any miracle–I even wrote down in my playbill: “I need a Xanax.” And, costume designer Sue Griffin’s choice of cheap, synthetic wigs for the debutantes in “Give Them What They Want” looks ridiculous but she puts Robin Arthur in simple but elegant ready-to-wear dresses.
We see the crooks’ spectacle pick up in Act II but not until the last three to four numbers and that’s already two hours too late to salvage the entire piece although the finale–“Dirty Rotten Number”–hits the jackpot. Leslie Owen-Harrington’s choreography is spot on in “The More We Dance,” and Maggie Horan plays the sweet flower girl anonymously well.
I don’t doubt the actors’ good intentions–McCarthy’s “Love Sneaks In” is eerily cathartic–but with a cast of eighteen, Kniffen’s hasty gamble suffers from diminishing returns. Perhaps two weeks of previews instead of one would have saved this show from its melanoma.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” runs through August 7, 2011 at Barksdale’s Empire Theatre. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.barksdalerichmond.org/ Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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