BWW Review: Wonderfully Fun and Entertaining DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS at Sooner Theatre
The musical theatre scene is filled with adaptations of Hollywood movies, to the point of overflowing. Some of these musical stage versions of popular movies have not translated well (Ghost and Flashdance, I'm looking at you). On the other hand, a number of them have gone on to become highly successful Broadway musicals, winning a number of Tony awards as well as critical and audience raves. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is part of the latter group and is now getting a breezy and extremely fun production at Sooner Theatre in Norman.
Steve Martin and Michael Caine headlined the original movie, which came out in the late 1980s and is arguably a cult classic. The musical version came on the scene in 2004 and stays very true to its source material, keeping the plot very much intact. That plot follows two professional con men working the French Riveria, the sophisticated and experienced Lawrence Jameson and the more wet-behind-the-ears Freddy Benson. At first, the two men team up, as Freddy implores Lawrence to teach him some new tricks, but they soon enter into a friendly con-man competition. They will see who can be the first to swindle a wealthy American woman out of fifty thousand dollars, with the loser forced to leave town for good.
If you've seen the movie, you already know of the hilarity that ensues. If you haven't seen the movie, the musical will be even more fun. Make no mistake about it, it will be a lot of fun either way. The musical's book is by Jeffrey Lane, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek. They keep things very light and entertaining, never allowing this show to take itself too seriously. There's a very tounge-in-cheek tone to the entire proceeding, which works perfectly and includes moments ranging from smart, witty banter to bawdy jokes that will have you laughing out loud.
One of the most challenging aspects of making a movie into a musical is, of course, adding the music. Or, more specifically, adding the songs (unless you're a show like Footloose that already has great songs in the movie). Yazbek really succeeds here in adding songs that manage to work perfectly in the context of the plot and characters. The lyrics maintain that silly, don't-take-anything-seriously tone and it really works. For example, the song "Nothing Is Too Wonderful to be True," is the silliest love song you will ever hear, but in this show it makes complete sense. That's not to say that all the songs are silly, there are a few songs which take a more introspective or thoughtful approach, such as "Love Sneaks In" and they work just as well.
Something else that works very well is the direction by Lisa Fox. She embraces the show's silliness and never tries to make it something that it's not supposed to be. While directors may sometimes decide they are going to make a show "their way" or "put their own stamp or vision onto it," Fox smartly lets this show be what it really is and lets the audience sit back and enjoy the ride. She keeps the pace at a good clip as well, so that ride never drags or feels boring. Less successful is the choreography by Aubrey Adams, which is a big of a hodgepodge that never feels cohesive. The big ensemble numbers, especially, could be a lot cleaner and tighter, although there are some nice smaller dance moments between two of the leads.
Another big part of this show's success rests on the shoulders of the two con men and Fox has brought together a perfect duo for this production. Don Taylor is a pleasure to watch on stage as the dashing and debonair Lawrence Jameson. His charisma and devilish charm are as perfect as his comic timing. At the same time, he doesn't just rely on charisma and charm alone to get the audience's sympathies. Taylor brings some real life and emotion to the character, making him more than just a common thief and getting the audience to love and root for him.
As Freddy Benson, Lucas Ross fills the other con man's shoes just as perfectly. It might not be accurate to say that Ross is playing the role of Freddy Benson. He's really playing Steve Martin, playing Freddy Benson in the movie. It's forgivable, though, because Ross is so great at it. He gets all the character's mannerisms down to a science and really excels at the physical humor. Like Taylor, he also brings some believable emotion to the character, elevating it above the level of caricature. He's also got fantastic chemistry with Taylor and they make a great onstage team.
While the men con a number of women during the show, their primary target is the American "soap queen," Christine Colgate. Here, she is played by the fabulous Danielle Flesher, who combines the lovable goofiness of Emma Stone with the singing of voice of Kristin Chenoweth. The entire show is really taken up a notch when Flesher, with her fireball-like charisma, comes on stage. Her energy is infectious and the audience can't help but lover right up until the final con.
Before she arrives, there are two other women targeted by our two con men. One, Murial Eubanks is played here by Cindy Hanska. Her performance is good, overall, but she could stand to tone things down a bit and stop shouting all of her lines and lyrics. Hanska's best moments come in her scenes with Andre, scenes which are quieter and more intimate, where she simply lives in the character's moment, rather than yelling it. Jolene is the other wealthy woman who finds herself in the middle of Lawrence's schemes. She is played by Christina Stewart, who brings energy and charisma to spare to the role. Stewart is clearly having a lot of fun with the part and her big song and dance number, "Oklahoma," is one of the show's most entertaining.
John Cargal rounds out the lead performers in the role of Andre, the local police inspector who is actually working with Lawrence, as a sort of assistant or right-hand-man. Cargal is perfectly cast in the role and has a number of hilarious moments. He also has great chemistry with Hanska, with whom he shares the aforementioned intimate scenes. Their duet, "Like Zis, Like Zat," is among the show's highlights. There are a number of other performers who make up the ensemble and are given various roles to perform. The women get more to do and are the clear standouts among the group, even getting more of a chance to showcase some beautiful singing voices during "What Was a Woman to Do."
The show's technical elements primarily work to not distract from the fun and silliness happening on stage. The set design by Tracy Stewart is minimalist, with some nice touches when a train or hotel room location is needed (although the scene changes take way too long). Anthony Risi's lighting design is playful when needed and does an excellent job setting the mood. The costumes are also well suited for the production and help to create the setting without distracting from it (no costume designer is listed in the program).
Lovable characters and hilarious songs are just a few of the reasons why this show is well worth seeing. Sometimes, theater is meant to do nothing more than entertain us for a few hours and this show does just that and does it very well.
DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS runs two weekends, with shows at 7:30 pm on March 31, April 1, 7 and 8 and at 2 pm on April 2 & 9. Tickets start at $25. This production is recommended for audience members age 13 and older. Tickets are available online at www.soonertheatre.com, by phone at (405) 321-9600 and in person at The Sooner Theatre box office, 101 E Main. St., Norman. Box office hours are Tues.-Fri., 10 am - noon and 2-5 pm, and one hour prior to show time.
Pictured (L to R): Don Taylor, Danielle Flesher and Lucas Ross