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Yes, it's dirty, and nearly rotten too

A stage version of the 1988 movie 'Scoundrels' stumbles in a bid at a 'Producers'-like leap.

September 24, 2004|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

SAN DIEGO — If you can't beat 'em, follow their lead. That's the lesson learned by the scam artists in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," the new musical that received its world premiere Wednesday night at the Old Globe, and it also seems to be the motto of the show's creative team.

In 2001, director Jack O'Brien and composer David Yazbek's Broadway musical "The Full Monty" received 10 nominations but didn't win a single Tony Award, shut out by two charismatic con men in a little show called "The Producers." So O'Brien and Yazbek are back, this time with their own screen-to-stage musical about two con men. Their "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" follows Mel Brooks' formula -- two unlikely partners in crime, a blond sidekick, lots of dirty jokes -- but the musical they've produced looks and sounds less like a bona-fide Broadway blockbuster and more like a Bialystockian boondoggle.

"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is scheduled to hit the Great White Way next year, but what was seen on the stage of the Globe on Wednesday evening seems aimed more toward burlesque than Broadway. The show is absolutely dirty -- some of the crude humor may even make San Diego's sailors blush -- and if not exactly rotten, the proceedings on opening night looked more than a little stale.

The 1988 Frank Oz film "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" (itself based on a 1964 movie, "Bedtime Story") about the art of high-end seduction may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it gave its leads, Michael Caine, Steve Martin and Glenne Headly, roles that elegantly showcased their comic talents. This "Scoundrels" has four excellent performers, but sadly, their talents are wasted in a musical comedy that's barely musical and not very funny.

Anchoring the show is John Lithgow in the role of Lawrence Jameson. As in the disappointing "Sweet Smell of Success," Lithgow manages to give a strong performance that often succeeds in distracting the audience from his show's shortcomings. Lithgow may not have Caine's old-world charm or vocal precision -- the lack of consistency in his various accents strains credibility -- but he has good comic timing, and the show is decidedly more watchable when he's on stage.

Norbert Leo Butz plays Freddy Benson, Jameson's unrefined apprentice, with lots of energy but zero restraint. He's clearly talented, but the role allows for little besides wild histrionics. Credit Butz for throwing himself into the part. Still, the result is a performance that seems like an audition for a Chris Kattan biopic.

One feels obligated to mention the female leads, Sherie Rene Scott and Joanna Gleason, though one wishes the show's creators would have given them something to do. Both parts are musically and dramatically underwritten. Scott's Christine Colgate is merely a plot device, and Gleason's puffed-up role of Muriel Eubanks exists solely to recite brand names and deliver bad puns.

The opening number is titled "Give Them What They Want," and indeed this overproduced spectacle tries hard to be a crowd-pleaser. "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" has no ambitions of being an arty, Sondheim-esque work -- it's an old-fashioned show with songs whose only musical ambition, it seems, is to make people applaud.

Composer Yazbek has said that much of his inspiration for the score comes from the work of Cole Porter. Certainly, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" has all of the elements of a Porter show: a Riviera setting, gay divorcees, flashy clothes and lots of champagne. Like Porter's work, Yazbek's songs bounce from one style to the next: scat, samba, surf rhythms -- even rap in "Great Big Stuff," an MTV-era ode to conspicuous consumption. But unlike Porter, Yazbek lacks an instinctual talent for using music to tell a story or introduce a character. It's hard to think of more than one or two songs in the show that actually further the action or even is necessary to the plot.

If anything, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" could be described as the anti-Cole Porter musical. If Porter's shows can sometimes feel as if the spoken scenes are just a way of killing time until the next big number, Yazbek's show feels as if the songs are just killing time until the next bit from Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning's original screenplay. Not that book writer Jeffrey Lane has left in all of the good parts of the script -- many of the best scenes have been jettisoned in favor of an oversexed subplot and a constant barrage of musty wordplay of the "I think someone put alcohol in the champagne" variety.

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