Photograph by Chris Bennion
Stem fatale: Hollis Resnik enjoys the favors of Drew McVety in 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.'
Scam artists troll the French Riviera in 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels'
By Marianne Messina
TWO GIGOLO-SCENTED con men cross paths and turn into the Odd Couple on the French Riviera in American Musical Theatre of San Jose's fresh-from-Broadway show, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. American Freddy Benson (D.B. Bonds), whose con is to play dumb and down-and-out with a needy, ailing grandmother, tries to get high-rolling Lawrence Jameson (Tom Hewitt), a maturely suave Midwesterner posing as an Englishman posing as an English gentleman, to take him under his tutelage. When the pair discover there can only be one of them on this patch d'Azur, they make a wager. The turf goes to whoever can first con "soap heiress" Christine Colgate (Laura Marie Duncan) out of a cold $50,000.
A musical version of the eponymous film from 1988 (era of The Grifters and The Heist), the show pokes at that 20-year-old funny bone with a shtick as old as the Alps—frat-boy-humor alert. The cast must flex a lot of visual/creative muscle to squeeze new juice out of it. Occasionally it hits. Pretending to be Lawrence's simple-minded brother, Bonds' fast-action animal humping is a riot. The scene in which Lawrence, as Dr. Shüffehausen, pretends to "test" Freddy's allegedly paralyzed legs with a cane—while Christine watches in amazement and Bonds struggles to maintain his ruse—works like a pratfall, thanks to great sound effects and the suspenseful way each thwack crops up in the song "Rüffhousin' mit Shüffhaussen."
In another funny skit, Lawrence's former scam victim Muriel (Hollis Resnik) and his sidekick, French police chief Andre (Drew McVety), tip, mumble and drift on a hotel balcony as a "morning after" couple in white bath robes and dark sunglasses. In spite of his deliberately cheesy French accent that made my French companion grumble a lot, McVety put the discreet/superior French stereotype to good use. So when Andre tries to impress Muriel by lighting two cigarettes at once, McVety's reservedly baffled delivery rejuvenates the joke.
The revealing line of this show comes very near the end when Jameson sings about falling for the girl (the mark): "The mocker's now the mocked/ That's what tends to happen when you leave yourself unlocked." Coming from two guys creating spoofs of spoofs on spoofs (book writer Jeffrey Lane and lyricist David Yazbek who saves himself by writing good music), those words could easily be an indictment of Broadway-as-usual. And maybe Jeffrey's scam with Christine Colgate in which he's "numb from the waist down" is a metaphor for how these things get written. Some well-appreciated topical and local humor runs a quick dust rag over the cobwebby material. In addition to a pot shot at our beloved city of Gilroy, the audience loved lyrics like "The Bushes of Tex were nervous wrecks because their son was dim/ And look what happened to him."
But even though book and lyrics are a celebration of the clichéd, the rest of the production exerts brute charm by being Broadway slick (with 16 producers, it had better be); the timing is crisp, the vocals strong, the music reminiscent of the finger-snapping big-musical era with lively, well-written duets. An exceptional dance ensemble came out all too briefly in ballroom and salsa numbers and dazzling costumes (costume designer Gregg Barnes), but they set to motion the grandeur David Rockwell paints with his scenic design. Right from curtain, he gives us those perennial palm trees, as chameleon as our heroes, varying their tripartite color and degrees of sparkle according to the light around them. Setting the land of the posh, Rockwell's compact scenery gets progressively better: angular doorways with wings, marble balconies with black wrought iron railings, half-moon windows of cut glass, chandeliers, even a bare-assed statue—not to mention tapestries d'Aubusson that earned my French companion's highest praise of the evening: "They've done their homework."
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, presented by American Musical Theatre of San Jose, plays Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 1 and 6:30pm through May 13 at the Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $13.75-$73. (888.455.SHOW)
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