New York City Theater
"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"
"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," the sometimes strained but often funny and certainly sunny new musical, is a joyful showcase for a lot of talents. Based on the 1988 Steve Martin-Michael Caine comedy about two con men bilking rich women on the Riviera, it follows the same plot, a bit too slavishly at times.
David Yazbek, the estimable composer/lyricist of "The Full Monty," has written smart lyrics ("rebelling"/"kvelling," "Oklahoma"/"melanoma," "a house in the Bahamas"/"paisley pajamas") for his hummable - yes, hummable - music. Jeffrey Lane's book brings too-long-missing smut back to Broadway, mixed in with its share of groaners. ("It's not as if you'll be the only royalty in town - there is a Dairy Queen" or "He's a man, not an egg - we mustn't coddle him.")
The cast is tops. John Lithgow is an urbane, twinkle-in-the-eye grifter, with a brassy but wise Sheri Rene Scott as his prey. The elegant and caustic Joanna Gleason and the silvery Gregory Jbara supply the subplot, which is kidded throughout.
But it's the lowbrow antics of Norbert Leo Butz that steal the evening. As an eager, sloppy, idiotic, vulgar, hyper, gliding, sliding pixie, the performer amply fulfills his earlier promise. When he comes to the plate for "Great Big Stuff," he bats the number right out of the theater.
Not everything works. The Act One opening is weak, a takeoff on "Oklahoma" is uncomfortable and the show occasionally runs out of steam, prompting those self-deprecating jokes. But the score is witty, ranging from country to comic to a lovely ballad, "Love Sneaks In." The show, under Jack O'Brien's swift direction, exudes barrelfuls of pleasure.
"Scoundrels" doesn't aim for the heavens. Yet this witty but simplistic, sleek but empty show might be just the balm for a world wounded by everyday horrors.
-- David A. Rosenberg
April 6, 2005