Fun ‘Scoundrels’ is the grift that keeps on giving
BEVERLY — Composer and lyricist David Yazbek likes nothing better than a good rhyme — except maybe a really bad rhyme, the kind that makes you groan, then giggle. “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,’’ which is getting a delightfully crisp production at North Shore Music Theatre through Oct. 10, is chock full of Yazbek’s goofiest lyrics, all of which are perfectly appropriate for this comic tale of con artists on the make.
In creating a musical based on the 1988 film with Steve Martin and Michael Caine, Yazbek, with the help of book writer Jeffrey Lane, has whipped up a frothy confection that works best when you suspend all disbelief and just enjoy the ride. Although Yazbek’s old-fashioned structure offers few surprises, his upbeat rhythms are hard to resist. But even when the songs feel old-school, his rhyming schemes will make you giggle, including the ultimate white-boy rap “Great Big Stuff’’; the danceable “Chimp in a Suit,’’ in which he manages to rhyme “primpin’ ’’ with “chimp in’’; and “Love Is My Legs,’’ in which he successively rhymes “damp,’’ “lamp,’’ and “ramp’’ without the slightest hint of embarrassment or apology.
The story of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,’’ such as it is, follows Lawrence Jameson (Brent Barrett), a suave, experienced con man living on the French Riviera, who meets a would-be rival in the form of a small-time crook named Freddy Benson (D.B. Bonds). After teaming up to discourage the continued attentions of one of Lawrence’s conquests, a wealthy spitfire from Oklahoma named Jolene Oakes (the hilariously scene-stealing Jennifer Cody), they decide to compete for control of their Riviera resort town by placing a bet to see who will be the first to swindle $50,000 from an heiress named Christine Colgate, “The American Soap Queen’’ (Brynn O’Malley).
If you stare at any of this nonsense too closely, it will fall apart, but director Mark Martino dishes out this sugary treat in such measured amounts, we enjoy the sweetness without getting sick. Although it would be easy to speed up everything to the pace of farce, Martino directs the musical with a firm but light hand, allowing the actors to dig into these caricatures and breathe a little more life into them. Barrett manages to give the egocentric Jameson a hint of fragility, which makes this cold character much more sympathetic. Bonds, who is reprising the role he brought to Boston on the national tour three years ago, is less manic and more three-dimensional, making his character more likable even as he mines every moment of physical humor he can get away with.
The beauty of this NSMT production is that no one in this talented ensemble gets smug. By reining in the broadest jokes just a little, even the subplot involving an unlikely romance between one of Jameson’s spurned lovers, Muriel Eubanks (Lynne Wintersteller), and his sidekick, Andre Thibault (John Scherer), has an unexpectedly tender touch.
By delivering a little humanity along with all the humor, NSMT’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’’ invites the audience to laugh at the cliches of musical theater without feeling conned.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.