Much like jukebox musicals, the latest trend of musical adaptations of popular and semi-popular movies has for the most part failed to impress me. There's just something half-handed about the way most of them just seem to cobble together a score, throw it up onstage and call it good--putting "a chimp in a suit" to quote one of the songs in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, playing now through September 30th at the Arvada Center. But if Sturgeon's Law holds that ninety percent of everything is crap, then the corollary is that the other ten percent is good--or at the very least, not crap. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, based on the 1988 movie staring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, is a ten-percenter.
The Arvada Center production plays the sumptuous French Riviera setting to the hilt, with an elegant, modular set designed by Brian Mallgrave and a chorus garbed in jewel-bright dresses and sharp suits by Clare Henkel. This is the milieu of Lawrence Jameson (Dennis Parlato), a suave con artist who poses as a deposed European prince in order to woo the hearts and wallets of bored heiresses and lonely divorcees. The ladies are so enamored with Lawrence's style that they're almost too willing to be taken for a ride--indeed, Lawrence insists he's merely giving his marks what they want, romance and intrigue and a liaison with an exotic stranger. Into this high-class world stumbles Freddy Benson (Ben Nordstrom), a scruffy American who sticks out like a sparrow among peacocks but who has a knack for spinning sob stories about sick grandmothers and conning strangers out of some quick cash. But when he sees Lawrence's palatial home, he decides (in the show's best number "Great Big Stuff") that he wants a bit of this swank for himself and begs Lawrence to take him on as a pupil. Lawrence reluctantly agrees, but the two egos soon start to clash and a wager is formed: first to con 50,000 dollars out of a specific mark wins, loser leaves town. The men select cheerful, klutzy "soap queen" Christine Colgate (a winning Laura E. Taylor) as the prize, and the game--games, rather--are afoot.
The musicalization of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was almost certainly inspired by the success of The Producers, as it also features an odd-couple pair of leading men, a swindle-heavy plot, and a farcical style that doesn't so much break the fourth wall as tear it down with a wrecking ball. Yet the show retains enough merits on its own to stand as more than a mere copycat. David Yazbek's jazzy score, while simply serviceable in places, contains enough gems to make it worthwhile: highlights in addition to "Great Big Stuff" include Christine's lively introduction "Here I Am" and Lawrence's pensive "Love Sneaks In." (Sadly, sound remains one of the Arvada Center's weak points, leading to a muffled opening number and an orchestra that tends to overpower the singers.) The humor is just low enough brow to be enjoyably crass without being disgusting, and both the swindlers and the swindled are endearing enough to be likable and flawed enough to deserve what they get. Parlato and Nordstrom carry the show well with their sophisticate-versus-slob sparring and great comedy bits such as the scene where Lawrence uses Freddy's poise as a veteran paralyzed from the waist down to exact some petty vengeance. But the second act is very nearly swindled away from them by Gary Lynch and Susie Roelofsz, filling beta-couple duties as Lawrence's corrupt police accomplice and former mark respectively.
In the end, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, like its central characters, is just giving people what they want: an entertaining time at the theater, with nothing revelatory or thought-provoking about it. But there's something to be said for a show that's just good plain fun, and the Arvada Center production gives enough back to keep the audience from feeling conned.
Located on a small expansion shelf about midway between the Third and Fourth Circles, Musical Hell is presided over by Diva, a minor demon charged with passing judgement on the worst musicals ever committed to film. (She still hasn't figured out if this is their punishment or hers.) Take a seat on the bench and have your earplugs ready, because court is now in session.
New videos posted on the first Monday of the month. Other viewpoints, news, and general ramblings posted when they crop up.