BWW Review: DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS at Oyster Mill Playhouse
In this day and age, musicals have transcended the limits of what they are expected to be. Shows such as DEAR EVAN HANSEN, THE GREAT COMET OF 1812, and HAMILTON break the traditional mold of Golden Age musicals with significant innovation that paves that way for even more creativity in this ever-evolving field. However, these new advancements should by no means overshadow the classics; rousing ensemble numbers and sweeping ballads will always have a special place in the hearts of many a theatre fanatic. These well-known and well-loved tropes of the standards of musical theatre are exactly what Oyster Mill Playhouse brings to life in their latest production of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. The show is filled with mishaps and mayhem galore, and reminds the audience of the sheer entertainment that musicals have the power to provide.
DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS originally began as a 1988 film starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, and was later adapted for the stage with a book by Jeffrey Lane and music and lyrics by David Yazbek. It follows an experienced swindler, Lawrence Jameson, as he forms a partnership and later rivalry with novice conman Freddy Benson. The show premiered first in San Diego on September 22nd, 2004 and soon opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre in March of 2005. The original production starred John Lithgow, Norbert Leo Butz, and Sherie Rene Scott among others, and was nominated for ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score. DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS closed in September of 2006, and while it has yet to be revived on Broadway, the show has found success in several national and international tours. In Central Pennsylvania, Oyster Mill Playhouse breathes an incredibly entertaining breath of life back into this unfortunately underrated musical.
Lawrence Jameson, swindler extraordinaire, is played by Carl Nieweld, and his performance never fails to emulate everything you would expect from a character of his type. Nieweld is suave and confident right from the start; both his stage presence and character comfortable in his place as a conman and he is evidently aware of just what strings to pull to get what he wants from just about anyone. His slight-of-hand antics grow into much more complicated ruses, especially as the show progresses, and Nieweld uses these opportunities to showcase just how conniving, devious, and intelligent Lawrence can be. He can turn on the charm whenever he chooses, and is quite often quick on his feet. Nieweld uses these facets of Lawrence's character to his advantage, and gives the audience a leading character that they are consistently impressed and amused by.
He often gives off an air of superiority; Lawrence is a man who has grown used to his place at the top of the totem pole and has risen this far purely as a result of his masterful manipulation. He has become accustomed to being the smartest man in the room, which he often is, and loves to show off his skill in any way he can. Nieweld's Lawrence radiates class and sophistication, whether he be charming his latest target or outsmarting Freddy, his protege-turned-rival. His movements are smooth and calculated, but the rest of his character portrayal, especially in rare moments of emotion, show sincerity. Nieweld uses Lawrence's more subdued scenes onstage to reveal a man who has forgotten his own humanity and wants to renew his faith in others around him. He has depth, and becomes more than just a simple swindler. At his best, Nieweld creates a character that is easy to root for despite usually being in the wrong, a feat that proves Nieweld has conned the audience themselves. His vocals are also particularly strong, especially in numbers such as "Giving Them What They Want," "All About Ruprecht," and "Loves Sneaks In."
Doug Nieweld is given an unique opportunity to perform alongside his father as Freddy Benson, a newcomer to Lawrence's territory of Beaumont-sur-Mer in the French Riviera who is looking to further his station in life through the art of the con. The younger Nieweld begins a bit stiff in inflection and confidence, but soon redeems himself tenfold as the show progresses. He finds his niche in comedic timing, delivering many one-liners with exceptional skill and awareness. Songs such as "Love is My Legs" become all the more enjoyable with Nieweld's ability to employ purposeful overacting stereotypes, and his facial expressions are some of the best in the show. Nieweld fully comes into his own in his number "Great Big Stuff," showcasing a commendable vocal talent and more than anything showing a great amount of enthusiasm that wins him over in the audience's favor. He often employs large physical movements and outstanding visible reactions, especially in moments of shock and surprise, that truly facilitate every scene. On the whole, Nieweld's Freddy is cocky and selfish, concerned only with himself and with the material world. He yearns for the finer things in life, and is not above using less-than-finer means to achieve his ends.
Compared to Lawrence, Freddy is still wet behind the ears when it comes to swindling, but clearly refuses to admit it once he enters into competition with his former mentor. In fact, once he and Lawrence establish the bet that sets the majority of the show into motion, Nieweld's Freddy becomes quite boastful and arrogant, full of himself and ready to prove his talent. Much like Lawrence, Freddy can play up any angle he must in order to sell a story, and Nieweld does this quite well, utilizing an impressively versitile range of acting to portray a poor paralyzed man just as convincingly as a crazy, mentally unstable brother of a prince. However, one of the most amusing aspects of his character are moments in which his true awkward and clumsy nature shine through, and these are moments that Nieweld also does a fine job of emphasizing. For all his big talk, Freddy cannot always keep up his appearances, but seeing his shortcomings make him all the human and all the more entertaining for the audience. Nieweld's ability to let himself go and fully enjoy the performance is what seals the deal in marking him as an audience favorite.
Freddy and Lawrence share a complicated relationship, one that progresses from that of a student and teacher to rival against rival. Each of these was equally entertaining to see; their antics as a combined pair are just as full of amusement as their competition and animosity. This is quite fortunate, as their characters often carry the show, and both Nieweld's performances ensure that each scoundrel lives up to their name.
Every scheme must have a target, and this is who Christine Colgate becomes in the eyes of Lawrence and Freddy. She is the "American Soap Queen" on a trist through Europe, and her perceived wealth makes her the object of their competition. From her first entrance in the energetic number, "Here I Am," Kaytee Moyer brings to life a girl who is all smiles. Her Christine is bubbly and overflowing with excitement and enthusiasm. Her friendliness and naivety make her the perfect subject for the battle for supremacy between Lawrence and Freddy, as she is quickly spotted as a woman who is easily swayed by a sob story. Moyer highlights these defining traits of her character, as well as her determination to help the less fortunate and seemingly natural selflessness. Moyer's Christine has a heart of gold and an oblivious mind; her kindness may be her own undoing if she is not careful, and yet she continues to give help wherever it is needed. Moyer consistently displays the utmost realism and comfort onstage, employing a natural presence and knowledge of how to react to the surrounding action, as well as a fully-developed range of emotion. Her sincerity is commendable, and this makes her instantly lovable. The audience feels almost sorry to see her taken advantage of, but her trustworthiness mixed with Lawrence and Freddy's deception is admittedly an amusing spectacle. Moyer is open and enthusiastic, especially in numbers such as "Nothing is Too Wonderful to be True" and "Love is My Legs," where she also showcases a wonderful voice.
A conman would be nothing without his partner in crime, and this is exactly what Andre Thibault has become for Lawrence. He serves as an unwaveringly loyal right hand man, and Brandon Rexrode is the perfect choice to serve as the voice of reason in an otherwise unpredictable show. He radiates practicality, and wants more than anything for the others around him to see sense, a desire he makes perfectly clear in the number, "Chimp in a Suit." However, despite his uncanny ability to point out any flaws in his partner's thinking, Rexrode's Andre is dutiful to the end, and goes out of his own comfort zone to aid Lawrence in any way that he can. He is smooth and natural, and sports an incredibly soulful, inviting voice that is put to good use in songs such as "Giving Them What They Want" and (especially) "Like Zis/Like Zat." Rexrode's Andre is a man of taste and talent, and he is a character that the audience can rely on for a touch of humor and of class.
Muriel Eubanks is played by Rosie Turner, and is a woman caught up in the idea of falling in love with a man such as Lawrence, whom she believes to be a prince. She is sophisticated, a result of her high social stature, and can provide Lawrence with the wealth to which he is so accustomed. However, when Lawrence does away with her rather quickly, Muriel is left to discover for herself just what she is capable of. Turner's Muriel is loud and bold, and Turner often employs a sort of overacting that seems a bit odd at first, but then later suits her character very well. Muriel is filled to the brim with enthusiasm and ideas, and clearly relishes any chance in the spotlight that she can get. Attention is the fuel that keeps her going, and Turner makes a point of bringing out the diva in Muriel as much as she can. Her use of large, sweeping physicality is put to good use, and her facial expressions are some of the very best in the show. Everything about Turner's Muriel screams "drama," and she is very clearly in love with the thrill of adventure. She wants everyone to be impressed by her, and is no stranger to showing off. Turner's range of acting is particularly commendable, as her character switches from having delusions of grandeur to flirting with foreign men to letting out her deepest emotions all in the span of two hours, and Turner handles each situation incredibly well. Along with Doug Nieweld, Turner appears to have firm grasp on comedy, and delivers some of the best lines of the show with just the right brand of humor. Her vocals are additionally outstanding, and Turner truly shines in numbers such as "What Was A Woman to Do" and "Like Zis/Like Zat."
No swindler's ruse goes completely as planned, as the character of Jolene Oakes succeeds in temporarily complicating matters in Lawrence's scheme. A proud country girl from the great state of Oklahoma, Jolene is played by Lorel Holt, who ultimately floors the audience with her talent. While her time on stage is significantly and regrettably short, Holt immediately wins over the audience with her character's perky nature combined with her convincingly Southern twang. Holt inhabits her character incredibly well; her line delivery and inflection was near-perfect, and she carries herself remarkably comfortably onstage. Her Jolene absolutely thrives on the big and the bold, and radiates energy. She refuses to take no for an answer, and bursts with pride when discussing her home state. Her role is undoubtedly comedic, and Holt thrives on the "large-and-in-charge" personality of her character. She facilitates this aspect of Jolene with a spectacular voice that was expertly utilized in the song "Oklahoma?" and succeeds in drawing the first gut-busting laugh of the evening.
The ensemble of this show truly succeeds in bringing the atmosphere of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS to life. From their first appearance in "Give Them What They Want," they blend together as a unit incredibly well, and all are experts in remaining in character and facilitating scenes rather than stealing attention from them. While the choreography in the show was few and far between, each dance number is executed very well. However, this ensemble truly showcases their talent vocally, and the female ensemble in particular steals the stage in number such as "What Was A Woman to Do," where their harmonies were almost angelic to the ear. While not onstage as often as they might be in other shows, this group of ensemble members makes the most of each moment, and each are given a time to shine in their own right. No matter how much time they spend in the spotlight, the show's ensemble always appears to be enjoying themselves, and this feeling tends to be contagious as an audience member.
A show such as DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS thrives on both physical and intellectual humor, and Oyster Mill Playhouse's production succeeds in each aspect of comedy. They thrive on outlandish escapades and clever quips, always keeping the audience laughing no matter what the situation. Each member of the cast is remarkably talented, and each contribute to the overall hilarity of the production. Moments in which each actor lets themselves go and truly embraces the art and sheer enjoyment of what they are producing are frequent and equally fulfilling. When the actor is having fun, the audience is having fun as well, and the cast of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS most definitely knows how to have a good time.
Presented by Oyster Mill Playhouse through October 8th. Next is JEEVES INTERVENES. Visit www.oystermill.com.
Photo credits to Lauren Bouldin of http://www.symmetrycopa.com/