Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - the musical

Book by Jeffrey Lane, music and lyrics by David Yazbek
Howard Panter and Adam Speers for Ambassador Theatre Group and Jerry Mitchell Productions
Opera House, Manchester

Michael Praed, Carley Stenson, Noel Sullivan and Mark Benton

Michael Praed and Noel Sullivan play the titular con artists in this stage musical version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Praed, is Lawrence Jameson, the more mature, experienced and suave operator, unassailably vain, irresistibly charming and ruthlessly exploitative of wealthy women staying at the best hotel in the small but sophisticated French resort of Beaumont-sur-Mer.

Posing as the prince of a little-known (because fictitious) European state, fighting bravely and against the odds to throw off the shackles of a foreign oppressor, Jameson's MO is convincing these lovestruck ladies to part with cash and jewels in support of the “noble” cause.

Such duplicity is less hazardous than it might be, given that the local chief of police, Andre Thibault (Mark Benton), is Lawrence’s willing helper. Both seem to be on a cushy little number, until an uncouth young American grifter, Freddy Benson (Sullivan), arrives in town and demands to become Lawrence’s student and partner in con.

As if this relationship isn’t sufficiently fraught, things get even tougher with the arrival of the pretty American ‘Soap Queen’, Christine Colgate (played by Carley Stenson). A contest is agreed: the winner will be the first to con this young woman out of €50,000; the loser will leave town.

This is where the rotten scoundrels start to play really dirty (though mostly in their attempts to sabotage each other). Suffice to say, given this is musical comedy, the biters end up well and truly bit.

The fourth wall is all but set aside in this production—with dialogue regularly addressed directly to the audience and even to musical director, Ben van Tienen. In the first act, however, the humour is a bit laden, with Praed, Benton and Sullivan never quite playing off each other.

Benton, in particular, seems ill at ease with his role as the corrupt French cop. My own view is that, whilst persistently cast as the “beefy buffoon’, he is actually much stronger as a dramatic rather than a comedic actor. That said, he seems more at home after the interval, when he has the capable Geraldine Fitzgerald (as romantic interest, Muriel Eubanks) to work with.

Act two is generally more successful, opening with the scene of the show. Freddy, having made a play for Christine’s sympathy by turning up as a soldier who has lost the use of his legs after being dumped by his girl, falls into the clutches of Lawrence’s sadistic Viennese psychiatrist; who is more than willing to test the young veteran's claim to be numb below the waist.

The best song in the show follows: the marvellously (and intentionally) cheesy “Love is my Legs” duet between Freddy and Christine. It should be noted, this being a musical, that all the principals sing well.

David Yazbek proves to be a functional composer but a star lyricist. His tunes are fine but not memorable, whereas his lyrics zing through every number—full of wit and invention. Listen out for why “the Bushes of Tex/were all nervous wrecks”.

If Jerry Mitchell could give his male leads a little more direction on delivering comic lines, his choreography is outstanding—slick, showy and often unashamedly camp.

Visually, for some, the star of the entire production will be Peter McIntosh’s beautiful Art Deco inspired sets, beautifully lit by Howard Harrison. Hold onto those for the next touring production of Poirot, I’d say. On the other hand, for those with a particular fetish for French maids, one of McIntosh’s costume designs will make this a show not to be missed.

A rousing and stylish finale gets a warm response (if only more of the show could have matched it). Some of the humour (and, occasionally the language) is for adults—or at least, ‘parental discretion’.

This matinée audience seem quite happy by the close.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson

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