By Andrea Warner
Theatre aficionados are familiar with the ‘makeover’ story. From Pygmalion to the Shape of Things, it’s been done before. But rarely is it handled so deftly as in the cheeky, raunchy, risqué musical, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Adapted from the classic ’80s comedy starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, the Vancouver premiere of the hit Broadway musical is a bitingly funny and fresh twist on a familiar concept.
Suave con man Lawrence Jameson (Andrew Wheeler) makes a living swindling rich women, but his stranglehold on the French Riviera resort town of Beaumont-sur-Mer is threatened when aspiring charlatan Freddy Benson (Josh Epstein) gets wise to Lawrence’s schemes, blackmailing him for a piece of the action. Bolstered by his impressively oversized ego, Lawrence deigns to school Freddy in the finer ways of life (better clothes, better manners, richer targets), eventually forming an unlikely and volatile partnership.
When a promising new mark, Christine Colgate (Elena Juatco), the “San Francisco Soap Queen,” arrives in town, the crooks make a bet: the first person to bilk the innocent girl out of $50,000 wins the right to the Riviera, with the loser vacating the territory immediately. High jinx ensue as the grifters try to outdo each other.
However, complications arise when Lawrence falls for the young Christine and Freddy refuses to call off the bet. A surprise twist ending throws a wrench into Lawrence and Freddy’s careful scheming, which left more than a few audience members seeing infinite sequel possibilities.
Replete with groaners and knee-slappers, Scoundrels’ musical numbers are chock-full of laugh-out-loud moments. Standouts include “All About Ruprecht”, where Lawrence and Freddy scare off a brash Oklahoma socialite who’s grown too clingy. Epstein and Wheeler are terrific, mischievous comedians who look like they know they’re performing once-in-a-lifetime material (hilarious dry-humping and brilliant lyrics), and they nail every gauche moment perfectly. “Nothing is too Wonderful to be True” is the best non-ballad ever, with Christine’s sunshine-y hopefulness countered by Freddy’s dry, sarcastic asides. Juatco, making a strong Playhouse debut, radiates charm, and it’s a testament to her appeal that Christine’s never cloying, but, rather, a woman who could convincingly and unintentionally woo the jaded Lawrence. Epstein, so good in last year’s Producers at the Arts Club, thrives here, offering just the right amount of swagger and swing to the immoral Freddy. Wheeler’s commanding presence and wry line delivery gives Lawrence the necessary nonchalant superiority. Of the three, Wheeler’s voice is the weakest, but he does a good job negotiating Lawrence’s solo, a surprisingly sweet “Love Sneaks In.”
Despite a lackluster opening sequence (which featured ill-fitting costumes for several women in the ensemble, and some amateurish choreography), Scoundrels is easily director Max Reimer’s best effort since joining the Playhouse in 2008 (and that’s saying a lot after last year’s wonderful, Jessie Award-winning production of The Drowsy Chaperone). From the cast to the campy set decorations (including a wondrously inventive roulette table/bicycle hybrid), Scoundrels is one of the year’s best shows, offering a welcome respite from the typical “heartwarming” holiday fare.