Well, yes: a bit vulgar, a bit hokey, a bit for the tired businessman, but often funny, not infrequently clever, with a nice sprinkling of the outrageous—that’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Yet another musical based on a film, and not even an outstanding one, it works for the most part. Not for the obvious reasons, though.
Jeffrey Lane’s book follows the movie with Michael Caine and Steve Martin closely enough, and whether from the movie or Lane’s pen, gags are not lacking. Since most of it takes place on the Riviera, quite a few jokes are about the French, which the audience relishes. Thus when the rich American Muriel Eubanks snatches an accordion from a French musician, she declares, “I don’t mean to be rude. What am I saying? You’re French.” But then, similar jokes are directed at us. So in an exchange between Lawrence Jameson, the No. 1 scoundrel, and Andre Thibault, chief of police and his accomplice, concerning a potential mark: “Money?” “Her people are in oil.” “Crude?” “Well, she’s a little pushy.”
Mostly, however, the humor is in good old one-upmanship jokes. Thus an exchange between Lawrence, the urbane scoundrel, and Freddy Benson, the low-down No. 2: “Freddy, what I am trying to say is know your limitations.” “Which are?” “You’re a moron.” Some jokes may be forced or too off-the-wall, and depend on your taste for such. When Freddy, to bilk the soap heiress Christine Colgate out of $50,000, pretends to be psychosomatically paralyzed, and curable only by the famous (and fictitious) Dr. Shüffhausen of Vienna, who charges that much, Christine writes the doctor. She asks, “Do you think I should use an umlaut?” “No,” replies Freddy, “you smell great.” So, too, the jokes sometimes smell great; others merely smell. I will spare you the examples.
To repeat, the book is not the problem, and neither are David Yazbek’s lyrics; uneven as they are, the good ones outnumber the bad. As Jolene Oakes, the Oklahoma heiress and easy mark, sings about the joys of her state: “And we’ll motor into Tulsa for the weeken’. / Through the windows of the pick-up we’ll be peekin’. / Not a tree or a Jew / To block the lovely view. / There’s a racetrack and a zoo / And Oral Roberts U.” But things get desperate when, impersonating Dr. Shüffhausen, Lawrence sings, “Everybody has to quote / That zippy Hippy-cratic oat’.”
The real problem is where it least should be in a musical: the music. Yazbek can compose patter songs slickly enough, but with ballads, he’s in trouble. He makes even them veer toward the comic, but not quite into melody. Indeed, there are no songs that transcend the serviceable into the memorable. Much of this is nevertheless redeemed by Jack O’Brien’s resourceful direction, Jerry Mitchell’s amiably inobtrusive dances, and David Rockwell’s dazzlingly deliberately sleazy-sleek décor, straddling the chic and the cheesy.
And to gloriously top it all, there is the cast: the ever-so-elegantly rascally John Lithgow as Lawrence, the no less wonderfully inelegantly rascally Freddy of Norbert Leo Butz, and the smoothly corrupt and understatedly Gallic cop of Gregory Jbara. Also the deliciously goodier-than-goody goodness of Sherie Rene Scott’s Christine, the polish of Joanna Gleason’s Muriel making even feeble or merely putative jokes funny, and the Oakie gaucherie of Sara Gettelfinger’s Jolene, more than okay with us. Even if Dirty Rotten Scoundrels does not quite have everything, it does have a little something for everyone.
Allow me, though, a final digression. There is a quality rare, if not extinct, in today’s musical comedians: the gift of being larger than life, of shooting up higher than your material, however accomplished it may be. This you may still catch if you hurry to Chita Rivera’s solo act at Feinstein’s at the Regency. It has something to do with a flick of the wrist that is jauntier, a kick of the leg that is kickier, an intonation somehow more suggestion-laden, and an expression that, the most effortlessly in the world, owns the bloody world. This is the ancient power of the ever-young Chita.