Now this is something you simply will not want to miss!


Director Jack O’Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and our friend, song writer-lyricist David Yazbek—the team who did the wonderful musical adaptation of The Full Monty a few years ago—have combined once again, this time with Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Rockwell (set design), to create a stylish, intelligent, rollickingly fun new musical, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  The story line is essentially the same as that of the 1988 Frank Oz film of the same name, starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin:  a tall, handsome, suave, and debonair con man named Lawrence Jameson (John Lithgow) is elegantly wooing and cleverly swindling rich women on the French Riviera, when Freddy Benson (Norbert Leo Butz), a short, boorish, small-time grifter from America arrives in town; they clash, eventually collaborate, and finally end up in a competition to see which of them can con a newly arrived American heiress Christine Colgate (Sherie Rene Scott) out of $50,000—with the loser having to leave town.  In this stage version, there is an additional subplot about one of Jameson’s victims, Muriel “of Omaha” Eubanks (Joanna Gleason) becoming romantically involved with the town’s chief of police, André (Gregory Jbara), who also is Jameson’s accomplice in crime.

The opening was last evening (3 March 2005), and today’s reviews, while generally extremely positive, were strangely mixed.  Clive Barnes in the New York Post (“super-smart new musical”; “one of the liveliest, best-performed musicals in years”; “In every way, this is a superior musical”), Roma Torre [for those of you with broadband capabilities, this link has her televised segment available, with a few short video clips from some of the numbers] from NY1 (“it's a treat for audiences craving something smart, catchy, and fun”; “a dazzling gem”; “This is a finely crafted musical that would be a crime to miss.”) , and Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal (“wonderfully, almost arrogantly entertaining”; " more than just a vehicle for its superlative stars: It's an exemplary piece of comic craftsmanship”) all seemed to love it.  Meanwhile, Ben Brantley of the New York Times had a markedly different opinion:  he seemed unable to get beyond some notion that the play represented merely a not particularly successful attempt to recreate The Producers (OK, both plays are based on movies that do involve two men of very different types who bilk women—but come on:  these are vastly different plays about vastly different things), and he was unable to grant much of anything positive about it (except, perhaps, for acknowledging “Mr. Yazbek's sophisticated knack, much needed on Broadway”—only then to say it was not present in several numbers).  Everyone, including Brantley, seemed to appreciate Mr. Butz’s exciting performance—and some, like Roma Torre, labeled  it “a breakout performance that's so sensational, it alone makes ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ a must-see”; and most recognized the excellence of Mr. Lithgow’s performance.  It was Clive Barnes, however, who best captured the extraordinary effect of the synergy between their performances:  “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.

I, in fact, found it to be an incredibly enjoyable show.  It has become tighter and punchier than when we saw it open in San Diego.  It is engaging, absorbing, and very funny.  The acting is on all sides good, and on some, inspired.  The characters are wonderful, and they are played to perfection by this extraordinary cast.  The singing is solid, and occasionally exceptional:  Sherie Rene Scott has the best voice of the cast, but Norbert Leo Butz certainly can belt out a comic song to great effect, and John Lithgow, as even Ben Brantley noted in the Times, “does fine by a Rex Harrison-style patter number.”  The numbers done by the talented Joanna Gleason and Gregory Jbara are quite lovely and satisfyingly humorous.  And even the ‘hootin n’ hollerin’ over-the-top number done by Sara Gettelfinger—singing the praises of her character Joalene Oakes’ home state of Oklahoma, where there’s “Not a tree / Or a Jew / To block the lovely view”—is thoroughly successful.  Jerry Mitchell’s choreography fits right in with the tone and feel of the show:  as Clive Barnes writes, it “enlivens every step of the way.”  And the dancers are remarkably adept at realizing his intentions—although some of the main characters are not quite as adept at this as they might be.


The sets by David Rockwell are sheer genius.  David uses a minimalist approach to create a totally luscious environment:  the evocative gesture of colorful, stylized palm fronds rotating inward and downwards from high on opposite sides of the stage bring one outside onto the Riviera; a perspectivally-distorted, silver chandelier descends to suggest that one is now in a grand interior space; and the single presence of an elegantly curved staircase framing a set of French doors underneath it is virtually all that is necessary to create all of the various rooms of the lavish, palatial villa of Lawrence Jameson.  And, as it does so effectively with the staircase of the villa, the rotation of the central stage is used masterfully to multiply the spatial possibilities, and infuse the set with the action of the drama—and the movement of the various components of the set add a sense of action and vitality to what is occurring in the drama  As Terry Teachout of the Journal put it, “David Rockwell, who designed the quick-change sets, deserves a special Tony for Best Use of a Turntable.”


Without making too insistent a point of it, there are moments when the boundary between the theatrical reality and the reality of the theater are playfully stretched:  in the midst of one musical number early in the first act when the female members of the ensemble begin, one at a time, to sing as conquests of Lawrence Jameson’s charms, they are joined from the theater floor by an “usher” who begins singing about her enchantment with some guy she has just moved down from the balcony to Row G in the orchestra; and there are several moments at which one of the actors communicates something to the orchestra—or to the audience; and there is one emotionally charged moment when one of the main characters makes an exit out through the aisle of the theater.


I can, of course, be accused of being biased, but I think David Yazbek’s music and lyrics are the magnificent heart and soul of the show. They are intellectual and emotional, moving and silly, profound and profane, lyric and rhythmic, very traditional and very current.  But Clive Barnes rather shared my opinion about what he called “Yazbek's divinely offbeat songs”:  “The quirky brilliance of composer David Yazbek is on full display. The songs enhance and propel the plot with such resounding force, you need to listen to every word.”  It may be an odd association, but to me David’s songs for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are most reminiscent of Cole Porter!  It is not that they are in the style of Cole Porter; it is that they are in the spirit of Cole Porter.  There is a sophistication in the word-play—even when the content is at its earthiest—that interacts with the elegance of the musical-play in a way that is so rich and so refined—even when the tune is a driving, modern, popular form—that the result is sublime.  There has been no other unique presence of the stature of David Yazbek in musical theater for many, many decades.  But, most of all, his music is fun!


The show has a running time of two hours and thirty-five minutes.  It is long, but it moves you right along with it—and the pace and energy of the show builds as it goes.  Early on you will find yourself completely and pleasantly absorbed; but by the time you are hit by the final number, the show has you!


This is a wonderful, fun experience.  Don’t miss it.  And plan ahead:  it is already not an easy ticket to get.  (I’ve now seen it twice, and I’m arranging for a third time in April.)


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is at the Imperial Theater, 249 West 45th Street


Tickets are available through Telecharge; or, if, you are a Gold or Platinum Card member, better tickets are available through American Express.  Good, but very pricey tickets are available through Tickco.com.


The Official Website:  http://www.dirtyrottenscoundrelsthemusical.com/


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