How many musicals are there about con men?
Let’s see — we could start with “High Button Shoes,” “The Music Man,” “110 in the Shade,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Chicago” and “Guys and Dolls.” We could add “Fiorello,” “Leap of Faith,” “The Producers!” or even “Wicked” to the list.
What is this fascination with musical con men? The twists, the turns, the lies, the laughs? And with so many singing swindlers, what could David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” have to offer that we haven’t seen before?
‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’
WHERE: Schenectady Opera House, 427 Franklin St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $28 to $22
MORE INFO: 877-350-7378, www.sloctheater.org
Actually, quite a bit.
Based on the 1988 film with Michael Caine and Steve Martin, the story centers on a comic culture clash between two con men on the French Riviera. The suave and sophisticated Lawrence Jameson (Steve Leifer) maintains his lavish living by “maneuvering” rich ladies out of their money. Small-time crook Freddy Benson (Joel Bramer) fleeces women by rousing their compassion with fabricated stories about his grandmother’s failing health.
After meeting on a train and trying to work together, the two agree to duel in a swindler’s challenge: The first one to extract $50,000 from their target, heiress Christine Colgate (Heather–Liz Copps), wins and the other must leave town.
What makes this show truly sing is its approach to the hustle. The show is fun and light, but there’s also a bit of a bite.
Yazbek’s score is a rarity of late in the modern musical landscape — smart without being obtuse and remarkably muscular without being trapped by its own intensity. Jeffrey Lane’s book is structured a little strangely — a character introduced at the top of the show is quickly tossed aside and a female victim is given a too-long song that isn’t really necessary — but it remains entertaining and crammed full with all the ribald risky business that con men conjure.
The key to success of “Scoundrels” is the proper casting of the two male leads. Both roles offer acting opportunities (and demands) of remarkable range, from the ridiculous to the romantic to the sophisticated.
Smooth, with just the right glaze of smarm, Leifer vocally hits “Give Them What They Want” with the right bite, balanced with a moving “Love Sneaks In.” Bramer is the perfect contrast. Silly, flirtatious and comically blessed, his scenes shared with Leifer snap with tension and dizzy nonsensical slapstick. Bramer’s deadpan humor effortlessly translates musically as well in the wonderfully offered duet with Copps, “Love Is My Legs.”
The women are also good. Brittany Glenn is rootin’-tootin’ funny as Jolene. Copps reveals the proper waif and wonder without overplaying her hand. And Mary Darcy is marvelous as Muriel, offering even more to the character than the author chose to give. Darcy’s duets and scenes with her love interest Andre (well played by Norman Eick) are tenderly comic and a welcome respite from the buffoonery that surrounds them.
This Light Opera production is pretty darn fine — set, costumes, orchestra, all good — with one glaring exception, the pace. While starting with a kick, the momentum faded fast. The musical numbers moved along briskly — choreographer Edmund Metzold’s work has the appropriate bounce and style — but when the singing and dancing stopped — the show lost its gloss.
That might change with an audience, though. I caught the opening night Friday during the height of the snowstorm, and there were more people onstage than in the audience — never a good thing to keep the energy flowing.