Theatre Royal, Sydney, October 24
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a complete delight from start to finish: a joyous night of perfectly cast, laugh-out-loud musical comedy.
Based on the 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, the show is set in the French Riviera where two conmen – the suave, sophisticated Lawrence Jameson and the younger, brasher Freddy Benson – compete to swindle $50,000 from a soap heiress called Christine Colgate. The loser must leave town.
Jeffrey Lane’s book and David Yazbeck’s catchy, melodic songs are deliciously witty and full of double entendres as well as occasional outright bawdiness, all of which inspire genuine, giddy mirth. There is also some priceless playing with the fourth wall (“Did I miss a scene?” asks Lawrence at one point) along with other meta-theatrical in-jokes including references to the musicals Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady.
Lane’s book cleverly builds the comedy, which becomes ever more farcical as the two scam artists spin their web of deceit in the hope of ensnaring their target. In the hands of this fine cast every comic moment is mined for all it’s worth, without it ever becoming heavy-handed.
Tony Sheldon makes a triumphant homecoming in the role of Lawrence, returning especially to play the part from the US where he is now based after his Tony Award-nominated performance in the Broadway production of Pricilla, Queen of the Desert. With his twinkly, dimply charm and immaculate comic timing, Sheldon is a natural for the debonair, charismatic Lawrence. He nails every laugh and makes the most of the opportunity to use several ludicrously funny accents.
It’s a consummate performance, matched by Matt Hetherington who is the perfect foil as the vulgar upstart Freddy. Hetherington’s unrestrained physical comedy and whacky slapstick is inspired – particularly when he is playing Lawrence’s supposed loony, sex-mad brother Ruprecht. He is also in great voice.
Hetherington played Freddy with great success for The Production Company in Melbourne in 2009 and was offered it in a US touring production but was unable to accept as his working visa was about to run out. Now we see why; he’s brilliant.
Together he and Sheldon are dream casting, managing to make the two scoundrels a hugely likeable odd couple despite their dubious trade.
Amy Lehpamer, who hasn’t been seen in Sydney since Rock of Ages never got here, is gorgeous as the kind, pretty, clumsy Christine Colgate (who is also not quite what she seems) and sings superbly. Katrina Retallick is downright hilarious as Jolene Oakes, a crass lass from an oil-rich family in Oklahoma, who is determined to marry Lawrence and take him home to the ranch.
In a romantic sub-plot, Anne Wood is very funny as a droll, swinging American divorcée, who having been duped by Lawrence becomes romantically involved with his side-kick, the Chief of Police played by John Wood. Wood’s questionable French accent wanders between Europe and Australia, but he plays the character with understated charm.
Having cast the production in exemplary fashion (the ensemble is also terrific), Roger Hodgman’s excellent direction puts the focus firmly on the performers in a production that is deliciously light on its feet. There’s a modest but attractive, flexible set by Michael Hankin, elegant, colourful costumes by Teresa Negroponte, beautiful lighting by Nicholas Rayment and appealing choreography by Dana Jolly, while musical director Guy Simpson conducts the 18-piece orchestra with panache.
All in all, it’s a superb production of a hugely entertaining show that exudes the charm of classic musical theatre, and is oodles of fun.
Hats off to producers James Anthony Productions and George Youakim. It’s their first big production and they deserve to have a massive hit on their hands.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs at the Theatre Royal until December 8.
An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on October 27.