In an unsettling trend, Broadway has turned to Hollywood for inspiration. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is one of a string of hit films revamped with razzle-dazzle and shoved onto a stage. Legally Blond will run at Actors Cabaret of Eugene later this spring, and if you’re in New York you can try to find a ticket for — yes, it’s true — Pricilla Queen of the Desert.
It’s an American trend that would be a lot easier to turn up my nose at if it wasn’t so wonderfully entertaining.
Take the Very Little Theatre’s current production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I loved the 1988 film about two conmen who get mixed up with the wrong mark, so happily peopled by Michael Cane and Steve Martin. But I like the musical even better. Minor characters are fleshed out and mildly humorous scenes are given a shot of steroid-strong song and dance.
Scoundrels is very consciously a play, with spiraling self-references and open acknowledgement of the audience. Michael Walker’s set works this shtick beautifully, operating like a Transformer, quickly and easily moving the imagination from a cliff top overlooking the French Riviera to a posh casino.
Director Chris Pinto sets loose on the stage a riot of local talent. Michael P. Watkins as the consummate playboy/conman Lawrence Jameson is pure casting genius. Tara Wilbrew is delightful as Christine Colgate the Soap Queen. Shannon Coltrane and an outrageous blond wig create a fearsome Jolene Oaks from Oklahoma, and Jennifer Sellers is a sketch as the ever-faithful “Lady Muriel” of Omaha.
But as good as these actors are, audiences may have some trouble noticing them; all eyes are on Tom Wilson, gleefully wrecking havoc as Freddy Benson. Seriously, this actor could be sentenced to hard time for stealing the show. He is funnier than Steve Martin.
The cast is supported by an extraordinarily strong chorus, which in turn is backed up by a first-rate band.
Seated beside my mother who shook with laughter throughout the show, I became convinced of the wisdom in converting a film to a musical. If you’re looking to be entertained, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the best bet for your theater money.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs through March 31 at the Very Little Theatre; info at thevlt.com or 344-7751.