Toward the end of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” dapper con man Lawrence Jameson says to his unpolished mentee Freddy Benson, “What you lack in grace you certainly make up for in vulgarity.” This sums up the generally satisfying 2004 musical, which runs through July 1 at High Street Arts Center in Moorpark.
The musical—based on the 1988 Steve Martin/Michael Caine film of the same name, which in turn was inspired by the 1964 Marlon Brando/David Niven film “Bedtime Story”—comes off as a would-be “Producers” without Mel Brooks’ sly, overtly scatological humor. Jeffrey Lane’s book is uneven, but High Street has assembled a cast spearheaded by a superbly entertaining quartet of leading players.
Nick Newkirk, who often appears in leading-man roles at High Street, plays Jameson, whose raison d’être is fleecing wealthy, unsuspecting women using his intercontinental charm (“I give them what they want”). Newkirk is as dependable as the rising sun and not only does he nail his character, he appears to enjoy Jameson’s unapologetic smarminess.
Although first-time director Alison Rosenblum has cast her husband, Michael, in the role of the madcap Freddy, all thoughts of nepotism are cast aside once you’ve his performance. Michael Rosenblum is so natural that it seems as if the part was written specifically for him.
Freddy is insatiably materialistic, as he explains to Jameson in the uproarious samba rap, “Great Big Stuff.” Freddy plays the eager student to Jameson’s unscrupulous teacher, a plot device that brings immediate comparisons to “The Producers.” Along the way, other Broadway institutions receive satirical daggers, including “Oklahoma!” and “My Fair Lady,” which are anything but subtle. All that is missing is a large, illuminated arrow screaming “BROADWAY REFERENCE!”
Jameson and Freddy zero in on Christine Colgate—a sweet, unsuspecting soap heiress—and they wager who can con her out of $50,000 first. Christine is portrayed by Megan Rayzor, who is more than capable of playing adorably dizzy dames who you’d want to take home to mother.
The scheme involves Freddy feigning paralysis in order to gain Christine’s sympathy—and $50,000 to help cure him (a device used in the 1966 film comedy “The Fortune Cookie”). Jameson parries this ploy by pretending to be famed Austrian therapist Dr. Emil Shuffhausen, who puts Freddy through all kinds of physical torture, hoping Freddy will blow his cover.
The story writes itself into a corner with this charade, which goes on much too long, but Rosenblum, Newkirk and Rayzor have a ball with it and raise it above its untenable pretense.
Fortunately, we have the show’s secondary couple, Jameson’s French aide-de-camp André Thibault and Muriel Eubanks, one of Jameson’s castoffs, played respectively by Jim Byrnes and Nora Kulkarni. Byrnes steals the show with his splendid performance, which brings to mind the lovable rogues Peter Ustinov often played. Kulkarni giggles and flirts and is absolutely delightful as Muriel. Their Act II duet, “Like Zis/Like Zat,” is one of the show’s musical highlights.
Equally delectable is Kate Fruehling as daffy Oklahoma oil baroness Jolene Oakes, who has her nuptial-minded talons into Jameson until Freddy saves the day, scaring her off by pretending to be Jameson’s ultra-repulsive brother Ruprecht.
Christopher Mahr designed the dynamic, Vegas-styled choreography while costumer Barbara Mazeika gave the three principles spectacular outfits to help define their characters: Jameson in stylish-but-snooty three-piece suits; Freddy in casual, Jimmy Buffett white; and Christine in an understated, innocence-inspiring mint green dress.
The bright, colorful sets were designed by Scott Armstrong and Ken Rayzor, the latter also coproducing the show with Kathee Boyer. Music directors Becca Peyton and Bennie Glasner do a great job with David Yazbek’s songs while lighting director Patrick Duffy makes the undersized High Street stage seem larger than it really is.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” may not be one of Broadway’s great musicals, but you’ll certainly have a great time seeing this production. Performances run through July 1 at 45 E. High Street, Moorpark.
For tickets, call (805) 529-8700 or visit highstreetartscenter.com.