The well-known film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has been rewritten for the stage and, with songs added and considerable talent, ends up as rather more than a half-decent musical comedy, just.
Perhaps it was waiting for the right cast, which it now has. It probably needs the right cast, and a severe trimming in act one.
It arrives with a fair pedigree: music and lyrics by Drama Desk award-winner David Yazbek (The Full Monty) while story and dialogue is provided by the Golden Globe and Emmy-award winning Jeffery Lane (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Mad About You.)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is one of a number of musicals opening in Manchester before transferring to London under The Palace Theatre and Opera House’s 'Manchester Gets It First' scheme. There’s no doubt the opening is aided by casting the multi-talented Robert Lindsay as the main role.
I haven’t seen the popular 1988 film with Michael Caine and Steve Martin, but the plot is an easy one to follow.
Scoundrel, or con-man, Lawrence Jameson (Robert Lindsay) is boringly successful in the French Riviera resort Beaumont-sur-Mer, seducing rich ladies as explained in musical number Give Them What They Want. His success is recognised by small-time hustler Freddy Benson (Rufus Hound) after meeting latest victim, Muriel Eubanks (Samantha Bond). In a scene reminiscent of My Fair Lady, Jameson accepts Benson’s challenge to turn him into a suave sophisticated success.
Their joint endeavours eventually turn into rivalry and Benson challenges Jameson’s supremacy by pretending to suffer from a psychosomatic illness depriving him of the use of the legs, and anything else below the waistline. The second act continues the rivalry.
With apologies to the editor, who despises clichés, the musical, with press night clashing with the City-Barcelona gig, was a classic game of two halves.
The first half was saved by strong performances. Robert Lindsay’s skills with a song and dance are well known, he won both the Laurence Olivier Award and Tony Award for Me and My Girl, and won Manchester hearts as Ginger Carmody in Leaping Ginger at the Royal Exchange in 1978. Jokes are now made about his age, but Lindsay and his dance skills have worn well and he is still quite the charmer. He possesses a natural flair for movement and performance skills to entrance the whole Opera House auditorium while seemingly completely relaxed.
Rufus Hound, fresh from success following difficult-to-follow James Corden in One Man, Two Guv’nors, is highly entertaining, and a competent singer, while Samantha Bond, fresh from playing aunties in Outnumbered and Downton Abbey, is quite a revelation, with a slight air of surprise at her ability with a song and dance - Without such strong performances the first act would have foundered.
The plot and characters are clear, Lizzy Connolly shines as oil tycoon daughter Jolene Oakes, but the songs are largely unmemorable. It has a feel of a Morecambe and Wise guest appearance, with Samantha Bond as Angela Rippon in the ‘surprise, surprise she can dance’ role, but without the comedy gold.
Indeed the strongest ‘comedy’ approach, All About Ruprecht felt really uncomfortable. We’re asked to laugh at Benson’s pretence to be Jameson’s mentally challenged brother. Morecambe and Wise would not have chosen such a target for humour.
The second act though, is a thorough success.
The early number Ruffhousin' Mit Shuffhausen is hilarious as Jameson, posing as a successful doctor, tickles then beats the wheelchair-bound Benson who cannot react without revealing his subterfuge to Christine Colgate (the superb Katherine Kingsley), their intended victim.
The writers here have a legitimate target as the humour is directed not at a wheelchair user, but at a charlatan, caught only his own charade. The rest of the songs are still not great and barely memorable; I can’t even recall the name of the salsa tune which exposed Robert Lindsay’s one weakness, salsa-dancing (hid within a well-performed and colourfully attired chorus number).
But the second-act story has pace, a dramatic arc and, unsurprisingly for a con-man caper, a twist at the end.
After a very short run here and in Aylesbury (Aylesbury?), it moves to London’s West End. This isn’t a new show, it was first produced in the US ten years ago, but has been rarely revived and not previously performed in the UK.
Perhaps it was waiting for the right cast, which it now has. It probably needs the right cast, and a severe trimming in act one. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly fun night’s entertainment.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs at Manchester's Opera House from Wednesday 12 to Saturday 22 February 2014 before opening at the Savoy Theatre in the West End.
Tickets from £23.40 here.
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