Bart Sher, Tony-award winning director of South Pacific recently helped me re-examine my notional prejudice as regards the pedigree of musicals. They can come from any source, he contends; which necessarily includes films. In the case of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, his laissez-faire approach becomes much easier to defend than in some others. (I know what you’re thinking: An Officer And A Gentleman. Yes. That puts the counter-argument.) And, after all, though a film, it was a musical film, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Jeffrey Lane. And it’s Yazbek that effected the transition from film to Broadway (after a stint, the previous year, on a San Diego stage) in 2005. In that year, it was nominated for no less than 10 Tonys and as many Drama Desk awards. It’s been running, somewhere in the world, almost every year since and now it’s Australia’s turn. About time.
To be brutally honest, while the plot is almost fiendishly clever, with the odd exception, the dialogue is often hamfisted; gags obvious. Particularly if you’ve already seen the film. It’s really the songs where one finds all the wit. The rest is down to characterisations.
Tony Sheldon, almost a career Priscilla (well, Bernadette) by now, having racked-up more than 1750 performances internationally. But there seems to have been a couple of years’ hiatus. He probably needed a rest and, for all I know, it’s taken the last two years to remove all trace of the makeup. Sheldon plays the role (Lawrence Jameson) occupied by Michael Caine in the film, but rather than attempt to replicate Maurice Joseph Micklewhite’s Cockney charm, Sheldon takes it in a more debonair direction; one I might associate with, say Noel Coward. It fits well. And with Sheldon, one has the reassurance of both talent and experience: nothing is over-played; everything looks and feels easy. At 58, he now rightly stands as an elder statesman of musical theatre and a kind of silver-haired god, at the feet of which aspirants may genuflect and worship. As Jameson, if a conman can be adorable (which is really key to the profession), he surely is.
Steve Martin possesses a comical style all his own and while Matt Hethrington, as Freddy Benson, draws conspicuously on the former’s lexicon of facial expressions, he (and, presumably, director Roger Hodgman) have had the good sense to use it as an influence, rather than a hard-and-fast template, or blueprint. The result is an entirely realised opportunity for Hethrington to remake the role at least somewhat in his own image and to consolidate his position in the top echelon of musical performers. As the sleazy Freddy, he’s excruciatingly good.
I love the naughtiness of having a “soap queen” named Christina Colgate and, as such, Amy Lehpamer is a revelation and it’s not impossible to argue she’s the best thing about the show. She’s certainly up there. She’s the archetypal girl next door and if she wasn’t in this, she probably should be in Grease, as you-know-who. But she’s better off here. And so are we. She not only looks like a dream, she sings like one too.
Katrina Retallick gets plenty of scope to sport her comedy chops as Jolene Oakes, the wealthy, loud, proud, peroxided heiress hailing from Oklahoma. She means to get hitched and she ain’t taking no for an answer.
Anne Wood, as Muriel Eubanks, also sings beautifully and gives a touching portrayal of a woman of a certain age, who falls in love with John Wood’s bent-but-loveable (aren’t they all?) cop, Andre Thibault. To the best of my knowledge, the two Woods are unrelated. They’re certainly unrelated in terms of performance. I have to say I get and don’t get John Wood. There’s something quite intangible that makes him easy to like, which explains his popularity. But his role requires a bad French accent. I could do it. But he veers between German, Aussie and who-knows-what. it’s not until very near the end that he seems to lock on to something approximating what’s required. But he sings surprisingly well, so I s’pose it balances out. But if there’s a disappointing, link in the chain, JW, I regret to say, is it.
The only other gripe is the set(s), which look second-rate, secondhand, tired and uninspired. Happily, performances and the playfulness of the songs tend to obscure the holes. By contrast, Teresa Negroponte’s costumes are splendid, as is the eighteen-piece pit orchestra under the baton of Guy Simpson and Dana Jolly’s choreography, which empathises with the respective abilities of each of the stars and stays, sensibly and comfortably, within those boundaries.
It could’ve ended about half-a-dozen times, so overwritten is the last half-hour or so, but DRS wins in the musical stakes, not least by dint of a number of lacklustre productions of recent times. While I can’t be as effusive as some have been, it’s the proverbial good night out, with a number of very robust and memorable performances. Better yet, it’s very gratifying to note different names on the tent: James Anthony and George Youakim would seem to have their first major hit on their hands and, when they reach into their pockets, they should find something there.
The swindlers portrayed might be, but Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is neither dirty, nor rotten. If you’re looking for that, you’ll have to watch question time.
The details: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels plays the Theatre Royal, booking until December 8. Tickets via Ticketmaster.