A Dirty, Rotten, Review

Ever since I’ve heard the music from David Yazbek’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” in 2005, I’ve wanted to see the show. But it has never worked out—either it was at a theatre that didn’t discount from their full high prices (cough, Pantages, cough, Theatre League) or at locations that were a pain (cough, south Orange County) or at times that didn’t work. Luckily, the stars finally came together this winter: a local company doing the show at a local theatre, and putting half-price tickets up on LA Stage Tix. So last night, we went to the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood to see the show, which was being produced by the center’s newest resident company, Interact Theatre Company.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is based on the 1988 movie with Steve Martin and Michael Caine (written by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro, and Paul Henning). Adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Lane, and with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, the story centers on two competing con men living on the French Riviera. At first, the suave and experienced Lawrence Jameson takes the rookie con man, Freddy, under his wing. But soon, Freddy tries to compete directly with Lawrence. The competition comes to a peak when they agree that the first con man to extract $50,000 from the female heiress, Christine Colgate, wins and the other must leave town forever. Going into further details might spoil the story for those who haven’t seen it, so I’ll note there is a more detailed synopsis on Wikipedia.

Those that have seen the movie or this musical know that the story is a very funny one. This is a comedy, not a social commentary (although I still insist that the song “Chimp in a Suit” could have applied to a past occupant of the White House). For this to work, you need to have actors that can channel their funny, and that don’t mind being silly at times. This is not a show that calls for underplaying and subtlety. Luckily, Interact has cast some very talented actors in the lead positions that do just that. Leading the show are Chip Phillipsæ as Lawrence Jameson and Matt Wolpeæ (FB) as Freddy Benson. These two men have excellent coming timing, and reasonably strong singing voices (there were only a few spots where they could have been a tad louder). Their vocal quality is very similar to the original leads in the roles (John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz, respectively), and they were a joy to watch. Supporting them as the Chief of Police, Andre Thipault, was Michael Manuelæ. Manual gave a very strong performance and had a strong singing voice in his main songs: “M0nkey in a Suit” and “Like Zis/Like Zat”.

As for the ingénues who were, ahem, worked over by these men… the first one we meet is Muriel Eubanks of Omaha, played by Susan Hullæ. No, she doesn’t constantly sing and hold her arms in the air in the manner of a last act finale (does anyone get that reference?), but she does give a wonderfully comic performance as a woman first interested in Jameson, and later interested in Andre. She has some great numbers such as “What Was a Woman to Do?” and “Like Zis/Like Zat”. The next lady we meet is Jolene Oakes, a heiress from Oklahoma, played by Tracy Powellæ, who also goes after Lawrence. Her introductory number, “Oklahoma” is a comic gem when you look at the words closely. Our last leading lady is the soap queen, Christine Colgate, played by Kelly Lohman. Yet another strong actress who captures the comedy well, Lohman has a number of excellent numbers, with the introductory number, “Here I Am”, being one of my favorites. However, all three leading female leads have a common problem: although they sang the songs well, they need a bit more power in the presentation—they need to belt the numbers a bit more. “Here I Am” also highlights another minor problem with the show (which is also seen in “Ruffhousin’ mit Shuffhausen”): they hold back a bit on the physical comedy. In other words, the clumsiness of Christine Colgate or the switch hitting of Dr. Shuffhausen needs to visibly appear to hurt, and the stage performance held back a bit. This is more likely a problem with the direction of Richard Israel, as the actors would follow the director’s instructions here, but I do hope they can improve this a bit.

Rounding out the ensemble were a team of four men and four women. The men were Steven Connoræ, James Benjamin Cooperæ, Robert Briscoe Evansæ, and Marc Fellnererezæ. All were good, but none particularly stand out in my memory. The women were Ellen Dostalæ, Jessica Evans, Melanie Rockwellæ, and Sara J. Stuckey. All were strong singers and comics. Of these I was particularly enamored with Ms. Dostal and Ms. Evans. Different looks than most actresses for both, and both were just fun to watch.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical side: The production was directed by Richard Israel, who as done a number of West Coast Ensemble’s musicals. The direction here was good and made the most of the small stage, however (as noted above) there were a few scenes where the comic pain was dialed down, and this was distinctly felt. Choreography was by Tracy Powellæ and was quite good: I enjoyed the stage coverage, I enjoyed the soft shoe numbers, and it was just fun. The set was designed by Deborah “Dove” Huntley (assisted by Robert Corn), who took the small stage at the No Ho Arts Center and turned it into the Riviera. I should note this is not an easy task: remember, Scoundrels was on Broadway with numerous set changes, and this production transferred that to a single set with no flyspace (only movable props) in a 99-seat theatre. The costumes by Meagan Evers evoke the mood quite well within the likely budget for this show, although a bit more “oomph” would likely have been nice. Lighting was by Carol Doehring (who for some reason didn’t have a bio in the program) and was quite good: no follow spots, but general lighting and a few effective gobos created the moods and illuminated everything. If there was a weak technical area, it was the sound by Matt Richter: although there were drop mikes, they seemed ineffectual, leading to my comments above about the lead actresses needing stronger voices. Stronger unobtrusive light amplification could have helped quite a bit. The stage manager was Faryl Saar, and Carla Marnett was the producer.

The musical director was Johanna Kent, who we have seen in a number of productions. She led the small orchestra, consisting of piano (Kent), drums (Mike Wachs), Bass (Clyde Yashuara), and keyboards/clarinet/saxophone (Patrick Burns). This small group was likely due to the size limitations of the facility, but it did hurt the show. Scoundrels needs strong music, and the addition of some real horns would likely have helped this quite a bit (although it likely would have forced amplification of the actors).

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” continues at NoHo Arts Center until March 21. Tickets are available through Interact. Half-price tickets, if available, are through LAStageTix.

Upcoming Theatre. As for us, what’s upcoming on the theatre calendar? Today sees two more productions: this afternon brings “Ray Bradbury’s Wisdom 2116” at the Fremont Theatre Center in South Pasadena, and this evening brings the February installment of “Meeting of Minds (Episode 23 with Jean Smart as Catherine the Great, Ian Buchanan as Oliver Cromwell, and James Handy as Daniel O’Connell) at the Steve Allen Theatre in Hollywood. The last week of February is open, and may remain that way as we’re seeing our congregation’s Purim Schpeil on Sunday evening. March starts with The Story of My Life” at the Havok Theatre on March 6 @ 8pm (where we’ll be joined by shutterbug93). March 13 brings “Celebrate Dance 2010” at the Alex Theatre in Glendale; followed the next day by “On Golden Pond” at REP East. March 21 will be another installment of “Meeting of Minds”. April brings more of potential interest, most currently pending ticketing, including Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris” at the Colony Theatre (likely April 10 or April 16), “Damn Yankees” at Van Nuys HS (April 15-17), the April installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre on April 18, “12 Angry Men” at REP East (likely April 24), and the So Cal Ren Faire (either April 25 or May 16). May looks to be equally busy, with “Little Shop of Horrors at Cabrillo Music Theatre (May 1), See What I Wanna See” at the Blank (likely May 9), The 39 Steps” at the Ahmanson (likely May 15), the May installment of “Meeting of Minds” at the Steve Allen Theatre (May 16), the Spring Dance Show at Van Nuys HS (May 20-22), and “The Wedding Singer” at Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall (likely May 30).

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.