The Con is Up

Broadway’s stage adaptation of film drains the sap to sweeten the score

“Get taken” is the slogan that appears on advertisements for the brash new Broadway musical “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

Given Broadway’s knack for fleecing theatergoers, often charging upwards of $100 for mediocre fare, odds are you may be expecting a show about con artists to make good on its promise.

But wait. It turns out the ads themselves are a ruse, because the show, based on the popular 1988 film, is a dandy delight well worth its ticket price.

Under the tight direction of Jack O’Brien, the show delivers all the elements we yearn for in a whiz-bang musical comedy—star power, a talented ensemble, a zippy score with wry lyrics, an enthralling book and eye-popping sets. It also boasts a secret ingredient—Norbert Leo Butz.

No, that’s not a character, but the real name of the actor who plays Freddy, a cagey young “beet-eating jackal” who teams with Lawrence (John Lithgow) to learn a thing or two about the con game. Lawrence is a crafty old pro who’s been scamming rich innocents and desperate housewives on the French Riviera for years.

Butz, who played a prince dwarfed by two witches in “Wicked,” may have found his dream role. His show-stopping solo, “Great Big Stuff,” not only explains Freddy’s criminal motivations but also endears him to us forever.

Though many have favorably compared Butz to Steve Martin, who played the Freddy role in the movie, I saw glimmers of other “Saturday Night Live” legends. Amazingly, this guy’s got the goofy moves of John Belushi, the snarky vocal inflections of Dan Akroyd and the manic facial tics of Chris Farley, all rolled into one.

A Broadway veteran with 19 shows under his belt, and a 5-year TV stint in “Third Rock From the Sun,” Lithgow is perfectly cast as the elder statesman of swindle. Showing Freddy the ropes, he gracefully steps aside to allow his protégé grand moments in the sun, with unexpected consequences.

Lithgow tosses off numerous cornball double-entendres with a cat-that-swallowed-the-canary aplomb. For instance, when explicating how to bilk widows out of their inheritance, he sneers, “Whenever there’s a will, there’s a way.”

When the beautiful American soap heiress Christine Colgate (Sherie Rene Scott) comes to town, the two cads vie to concoct elaborate schemes to rid her of her riches. Let’s just say she gives them quite a run for her money.

Rounding out the fine cast are Gregory Jbara, as Lawrence’s French sidekick, Andre, and Joanna Gleason as “Muriel from Omaha,” a wealthy target who becomes an object of affection.

The performers have unusually rich material to work with, thanks to David Yazbek, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Jeffrey Lane, who wrote the book. Yazbek skillfully rhymes “Oklahoma” with “melanoma” and gets huge laughs, while Lane counters with one of the night’s big crowd-pleasing lines, “Breeding is important… but lighting is everything.”

The bright score borrows from a range of contemporary styles, across which the nimble, talented cast glides with ease. And Jerry Mitchell’s choreography is as sassy and sophisticated as ever.

The rotating set, at times nearly as dizzying as the smart repartee, also incorporates a pastiche of styles—art nouveau, rococo, deco and even surrealism. With its hyper candy colors and glittery sheen, it appears as if designer David Rockwell might have dabbled with Barbie’s playhouse once too often. It’s no surprise the design dazzles, given that Rockwell’s architecture firm is responsible for crafting interiors for W Hotels and the Mohegan Sun casino.

In perhaps its greatest feat off all, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” boldly upholds the sacred scoundrel mantra, which should be the aim of every Broadway musical extravaganza: “Give ‘em what they want and leave ‘em wanting more.”

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