Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Honor Among Thieves

[The following feature was written for the current Arvada Center program guide, artscentric.]

Thieves by their very nature are untrustworthy. Even when working together, there's always the nagging undercurrent of "every man for himself." So what happens when a couple of scammers end up competing against one another, bilking well-to-do women out of excess funds, on the French Riviera? That's what this musical—based on the 1988 film by the same name, itself a remake of Bedtime Story (1964), starring David Niven, Marlon Brando, and Shirley Jones—endeavors to find out with absurd aplomb.

(Left to right) Ben Nordstrom as Freddy and Dennis Parlato as Lawrence
(L to R) Ben Nordstrom as Freddy
and Dennis Parlato as Lawrence
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
It's all in fun. If any reservations the audience may have about the goings on are not dispelled by the bottomless wealth of the victims, whatever reticence remains is surely cast away by the sheer chutzpah of the swindlers: Lawrence Jameson, a debonair confidence man who is comfortable impersonating jet-setting movers and shakers (think exiled royalty), and Freddy Benson, a goofy, rough-edged American who uses the ploy of "a dear ailing elderly grandmother" to prey on the empathy and neediness of wealthy widows and wayfaring trophy wives.

The final, and perhaps strongest, catalyst for a night of mayhem and misrule is provided by Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics), whose production numbers sell the premise as a farce, forcing us, if all else fails, to leave any remaining concerns for the fleeced aside. When money is no object, we are free to laugh at the foibles of the principals who, like ourselves, ignore all sense and embrace whatever delusions their hearts desire. Right from the top, Lawrence tells us he's "giving them what they want ... specifically what they want, all tied up with a bow."

(Left to right) Mercedes Perez as Sophia, Dennis Parlato as Lawrence, and Alicia Dunfee as Lenore
(L to R) Mercedes Perez as Sophia,
Dennis Parlato as Lawrence,
and Alicia Dunfee as Lenore
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
What brings the well heeled to such a state that the likes of Lawrence and Freddy find fertile ground for their laughable ploys? According to Lenore, one of Lawrence's marks, it's "an escape from the ennui." Beneath the surface of the elegant scene in the Côte d'Azur idyll of Beaumont-sur-Mer, things are much the same as in our own backyard, with folks looking for a little fun and comfort to break the routine.

Yet, a garden spot on the Mediterranean makes this scenario so much more delicious! Much like the comedic staples in the theatres and cinemas during the aftermath of the stock market crash of '29, so the hardships of today's economic contraction make the fluff of elite playgrounds an attractive daydream. In such an atmosphere, as Cole Porter so aptly once put it, "Anything Goes!"

As artistic producer and show director Rod Landberry sees it, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels "is one of the few musicals out there written for pure fun! I like to see it as 'James Bond meets the Pink Panther.' Intrigue and comedy—that's what I was looking for! No one is taken advantage of to the point where they're hurt; in fact, they're almost willing to be taken. We all know that money doesn't buy happiness, yet it seems we'd all like to try and find out if that's true for us!"

"It's just like the opening number says, 'Give Them What They Want.' That's really what it is: they want the fun and excitement that their lives are missing; they want the attention and they're willing to pay for it."

Laura E. Taylor as Christine and Ben Nordstrom as Freddy
Laura E. Taylor as Christine
and Ben Nordstrom as Freddy
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
We might even imagine a set of honorable thieves, if only for a moment. Somewhere along the way, after Christine Colgate arrives and as Lawrence and Freddy jockey for position, the rules change and all bets are off!

Like Molière's zany mockeries, no authorities are to be trusted: doctors are quacks and the police are in the protection racket, much like in Casablanca, when Rick helps Laszlo escape and Lieutenant Renault tells his men to "round up the usual suspects." In Beaumont-sur-Mer, life is a game of chance; it's hard to tell where the casino ends and life begins—or even where one persona turns into the next.

In the end, even Lawrence, Freddy, and Christine get what they want, which leads to an interesting question: In what ways are we like these three scoundrels? That's the beauty of a well-turned farce: we get to try on these roles as well, like standing in front of a fun house mirror, and considering both the hilarious and grotesque possibilities. As Lansberry puts it, "There's not a judgment call in the show. It's just fun. The twist at the end is priceless."

The Arvada Center's production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs through September 30th. 720-898-7200 or

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