Fort Worth — Sometimes the chemistry onstage is better than the material—but what the hey, that can work, too.
Ben Phillips and Trey West, the two cheery, cheeky stars of the Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, work the stage of the Fort Worth Community Arts Center’s Sanders Theatre like the inside of a nuclear reactor—bouncing the comedy vibes off each other and off the walls. Their goofy, unwilling bromance gives heart to this silly story, and goes a long way to cut through the essential cheesiness of the show, which really should be allowed to play only on Throwback Thursdays.
David Yazbek’s songlist is a grab-bag of this and that from ‘80s and ‘90s showtune and pop styles, but the plot is strictly mid-century, a When Pillow Talk met Pink Panther effort straight out of that last-gasp moment before the smarmy, sex-farcey ‘50s turned into the we-reject-all-that ‘60s. (Scoundrels, which opened on Broadway in 2005, is drawn from a 1988 Michael Caine-Steve Martin film that was itself a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story, a movie starring David Niven and—get this—Marlon Brando.)
Still, it’s an evening of good dumb fun with plenty of laughs, even—or maybe because of—the bad puns and wink-wink tone.
The main plot involves a face-off between two romantically predatory con men. Lawrence Jameson (Phillips) has had the French Riviera town of Beaumont-sur-Mer all to himself—and with the help of genially corrupt police chief Andre (Evan Faris, amusing even through his too-thick French accent) he’s made quite a bundle wooing the wealthy wives and widows who come there to play. Larry pretends to be a deposed prince raising money for “the revolution” to come, though he’s down to his last pawnable bit of royal bling. Enter lowlife Freddy Benson (West), who’s been happy to score twenty bucks from the sympathetic women he cons with his boy-in-distress stories. Until, that is, he gets an eyeful of Larry’s lavish lifestyle. In the show’s best number, “Great Big Stuff,” Freddy (the song is a Steve Martinesque prancer along “King Tut” lines) sets higher goals: he’d like some (or all?) of what Larry has.
“Teach me your ways,” Freddy begs. Larry’s not interested, until he gets in a jam with Jolene (Adrian Coco Anderson), the pistol-packing heiress to an Oklahoma fortune in oil. (“Crude? Well, she’s just a little pushy.”) Jolene wants more than a fling—she wants marriage—and Larry concocts a scheme involving Freddy that’s sure to make her run for home.
The two grifters decide this chic little town might not be big enough for the both of them—and they’ve heard rumors there’s a third con artist lurking, the mysterious “Jackal.” Larry and Freddy make a bet: the first to wangle $50,000 out of a woman wins Beaumont-sur-Mer; the loser will get out of Dodge…forever.
In addition to Anderson’s boots-and-bustier Jolene (she’s pretty fun to watch), we meet the wealthy, lonely Muriel (Kristin Spires), who has a fling with “the Prince” but then decides to stick around for the fun of it. She brings a lovely voice to “What Was a Woman To Do,” and floats jauntily through scene after scene, ever-hopeful that “in the second act” she’ll be given a part to play in the action. (Spires, a voice professor at Texas Wesleyan, is one of several cast members who hail from Oklahoma City U, that hotbed of musical theater talent.)
And last but not least, there’s ultra-sweet Christine (Shannon Garcia), the “soap queen” of Cincinnati, a natural target for both Larry and Freddy. Garcia is doe-eyed, fresh and tuneful in her introductory number “Here I Am,” and pairs with West for the pretty ballad “Nothing is Too Wonderful to Be True.” Once again, SSG has looked for fine singing voices and acting/dancing talent for the ensemble, and the extra level of attention pays off—though once again the singers have to put up with pre-recorded music. We realize this is a matter of money, but it's an unsettling trend with a group that used to have live music for musicals. Even a piano reduction is preferable.
This is director Alex Krus’ fourth time at the helm for SSG: he directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and co-directed Spamalot and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Paired up with choreographer Becca Brown, a delightful Ado Annie in SSG’s recent Oklahoma!, their Scoundrels has lots of energy and some quirkily meta moments: the ensemble seems very aware of the audience at all times, and isn’t above asking us questions or involving us in the action. The stage can feel a bit crowded and random when the whole ensemble is dancing—but if you watch one couple or a small group, there’s a nice precision of movement that works well, whether the song is a cowboy number or a slinky waltz.
As usual with Stolen Shakespeare Guild, the production is a communal effort, with costumes by SSG co-founder Lauren Morgan and Stefanie Glenn, and a wide terrace-and-stairways set from designer Amy Shuffield and master carpenter Keith Glenn, attractively lit by Scott Davis. SSG’s Jason Morgan helped build the set along with director Krus, Glenn and the always-useful Bryan Douglas.
But back to the original premise: this Dirty Rotten Scoundrels works because Larry and Freddy work. Ben Phillips has a fine, strong voice and all the comic gravitas he needs to bring the smooth and snooty Lawrence to life—and give us a glimpse of something we can’t quite believe: the nice-guy Larry underneath. And Trey West is a treat to watch as Freddy. He has a clear, upbeat voice that can sell any song, and a command of physical comedy that makes you laugh just to look at him—though when put to it (he’s “paralyzed” for part of the show), he can make sweet loooove to an audience with his shameless eyes alone.
Together, their comic timing and all-in energy carries the show. They’re a rare pair of jokers—in a stacked deck, of course.