Charming con artists fleece the rich and famous in a beautiful, cultured community by the sea. We’re talking about “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” of course. What did you think we were talking about? It’s a musical, with songs by David Yazbek and script by Jeffrey Lane. The Players is staging it now.
Said musical is an adaptation of the 1988 Frank Oz movie, which, believe it or not, was an official adaptation of “Bedtime Story” and an unofficial adaptation of every screwball comedy ever made.
The set-up? Two mountebanks cross paths in the French Riviera. Lawrence (Tim Fitzgerald) is the Picasso of flimflam artists, and he’s got his own chateau to prove it. His specialty? Improbable sob stories that separate wealthy women from their jewels and money. (He’s a prince from a geographically unspecified country leading a cash-poor revolution.) Freddy (Scott Vitale) is strictly small-change; $20 to this guy is a big payday. In the grifter food chain, Freddy’s a sidewalk sketch artist. Class meets crass and, in the end, there can only be one. Lawrence and Freddy make a wager. The first scam specialist to con $50,000 out of Christine Colgate (Amanda Heisey), a sweet, bubble-headed American soapsuds heiress, wins. Loser leaves town. Les jeux sont faits. Or, as we say in the U.S., game on.
But roulette is a poor analogy. It’s scam artist chess, move after countermove. Paralyzed vet to queen four. Fake psychoanalyst to king’s bishop five. The gambits escalate to an improbable double checkmate. In case you missed the movie, I won’t spoil it.
Director Michael Newton-Brown drives the screwball action along with a savvy sense of comic rhythm. As to the screwball actors: Vitale dials it up to 11 as the younger grifter. He’s a great, high-energy physical comic and perfect as the sleazy-yet-charming Freddy. Fitzgerald’s Lawrence has a John Goodman-esque gravitas; the straight man, of course. That’s the toughest comic assignment, but he nails it. Heisey’s Colgate is multidimensional and not the good-hearted, clueless, All-American girl she first appears to be. Andrea Keddell gets the audience howling with her full-on lunacy as an unhinged Oklahoma socialite. Ken Basque is warmly funny as Andre Thibault, the police chief in Lawrence’s pocket. Cara Herman puts in a sweet performance as Muriel Eubanks, a mark at first, but Andre’s surprising love interest at the end.
Now, let’s talk song and dance. Choreographer Kathryn Kulik supplies fun choreography that’s big on the ooh-la-la, with fine musical direction by Joyce Valentine. “Give Them What They Want” presents the fiction of con artist as dream maker. (Victims aren’t victims if they’re happy to give their money, right? Right.)
“Oklahoma” offers the nightmare of a lunatic panhandle princess roping Lawrence into purgatory in a plains state. “Great Big Stuff” is Freddy’s ode to excess. He bounces around like an oversexed Tigger, cataloging the things of this world.
"Now I know where I belong —
"A life of taste and class
"With culture and sophistication
"pouring out my … "
Yes, it’s great big fun. With the exception of the hip-hoppy “Great Big Stuff,” the songs are old-school musical fare with satiric subtext — exceedingly witty lyrics, exceedingly forgettable tunes. You won’t be whistling the songs on the ride home.
As to the take-away moral, forget about that, too. “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is all about guilty pleasures.
Vicariously, along with enjoying a trip to the French Riviera, you get to be a scoundrel in your mind — a scoundrel with a heart of gold. Real con artists regard their victims with the attitude great white sharks take to surfers. You’re lunch, buddy. But this is a fictional France, and it’s all for laughs. Everyone gets taken. But nobody gets hurt.
IF YOU GO
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” has been extended through April 6 at Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information, call 365-2494 or visit theplayers.org