There are several strong similarities between the stage version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Both began as non–musical movies – funny stuff, in both cases, but not exactly blockbusters at the box office.
Brooks re–wrote The Producers years later as a stage comedy, composing the songs himself and ratcheting up the zaniness with slapstick and visual gags.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels followed suit, and although it received generally good reviews and a pile of Tony nominations, it never enjoyed the same sort of reinvention renaissance as The Producers.
Which is a shame, because the staged Scoundrels is nearly as witty as Brooks’ twisted show business valentine. And it’s certainly better than director Frank Oz’ 1988 movie, its source material.
Armstrong Atlantic State University’s current production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - continuing through March 27 - is frivolous, fun and easy on the eyes and ears. Although marred by one or two slow sections, the show goes by quickly, the members of the college troupe clearly understanding its larger–than–life, cartoonish quality.
Scoundrels is set in Beaumont Sur Mer, a posh gambling village on the French Riviera. For years, local cad Lawrence Jameson has preyed on the wealthy American women who visit, conning them with his cultured charm, lying through his immaculate teeth and then taking their money.
Small–time hustler Freddy Benson arrives and proceeds to compete with Jameson. The two form an unlikely alliance, and over the course of the movie–slash–play, attempt to one–up each other by increasing the stakes of each successive con.
The AASU Masquers company features Jonas Boyd as Lawrence, and Brett Levine as Freddy. They’re both watchable actors with solid comic timing.
Boyd plays the entire thing deadpan, which is a good thing since his charachter has many of the show’s most outrageous lyrics (see “Ruffhousin’ Mit Shuffhausen,” in the second act).
Levine has the more difficult part, since much of his shtick is physical rather than verbal. One of his Act One songs, “Great Big Stuff,” is part egotistical rap and part hip–swiveling Elvis parody. And he spends much of Act Two in a wheelchair (don’t ask; it’s part of the plot).
The acting plaudits for this production, however, really go to John Martin as the local (corrupt) police chief Andre Thibault (think Claude Rains in Casablanca). The pencil–thin moustachio’d Martin speaks with an exaggerated Clouseau accent, and he has many of the play’s best lines.
A subplot involving Andre and one of Lawrence’s American conquests, which didn’t appear in the movie, is one of the funniest things in an already hilarious Act Two.
It’s as if playwright David Yazbek figured out what wasn’t so great in the Launer/Shapiro/Henning film script, and found ways to make it better. While whole sections of dialogue come straight out of the movie, Yazbek has fleshed it out with clever one–liners and double entendres. The songs, too, use occasional naughty words as punchlines.
(You know, it’s tough not to at least smile when a straight–faced actress musically rhymes “Oklahoma” with “melanoma.”)
Eve Butler appears as Christine Colgate, a naive young woman who won a trip to Beaumont in a sweepstakes.
The doe–eyed Butler (a Winona Ryder look–alike) is delightful in every scene she’s in; like Martin’s, her performance tends to bring out the best in both Boyd and Levine, who surprisingly don’t have a lot of chemistry together.
Like many lavish productions on small stages, this Dirty Rotten Scoundrels sometimes doesn’t know what to do with its dancing ensemble players — they tend to look a little crowded, and — particularly in the Act One I saw — seemed to be counting their steps.
Megan Baptiste–Field’s set design brings Lawrence’s opulent seaside digs to life, and when the full moon suddenly appears over the Mediterranean (a running gag), the ambiance changes in an agreeable instant.
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, this Dirty Rotten Scoundrels doesn’t take itself too seriously. And in musical comedy, that’s some serious business.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels continues through Feb. 28 at the AASU Jenkins Hall theater.
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