Theater Review: Timber Lake Playhouse opens Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

When the original film version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels came out in 1988, it offered something of a new take on the proven comedy theme of “competitive con artists.” In this case, set on the fabulous French Riviera, we find a suave, handsome, big-time, man-about-town con meeting up with and challenging a down-on-his-luck, loudmouthed, sloppy, small-time scalawag. And it worked beautifully because of the brilliant cast selected by the famous director, Frank Oz: Michael Caine as the sophisticated playboy and Steve Martin as the gauche, inept rascal.

The Broadway musical version opened in March 2005, starring John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz. It played 666 performances and received 11 Tony nominations; but Butz was the only one who won the award, as Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical Comedy.

Mount Carroll’s Timber Lake Playhouse opened their production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels this past weekend, and although it succeeds with a regional summer stock audience looking for a nice summer evening of fun, it doesn’t really live up to a fulfilling night of musical theater. Let me immediately assure you that this group of talented performers pulled out all the stops to make the show work. It’s a great bunch of energetic entertainers.

Karl Hamilton brings a résumé of impressive Chicago experience to the role of debonair Lawrence Jameson. His excellent singing voice is best enjoyed in the soulful ballad “Love Sneaks In,” which is one of the few really good songs in the whole show.

As Freddy Benson, the sly and slippery ne’er-do-well, Carl Hendin of Dallas, Texas, convinces us he is type cast, and is using his natural comedic talent throughout, especially in his big opening song, “Great Big Stuff,” a rousing tribute to money. Benson is quite disarming.

The three leading ladies are equally strong. Kaci Scott as Christine, the “sweet young thing” whom the con artists vie for, is triple threat perfect for the role. Jamie Finkenthal as Muriel Eubanks maintains some equilibrium in a difficult-to-balance role (in spite of somewhat vulgar costumes and coiffure); and the inimitable Sainty Reid, who stole the show in The Wedding Singer, is again great as the Texas heiress, Jolene Oakes (although pushed just a wee bit over the top).

Actually, the performers do all they can to cover the inadequacies of the basic script and score. But this just is not a great musical. I know! I know! I said it played Broadway for 666 performances. But when one really examines it, one finds the plot is contrived to include anything and everything to get a laugh, to keep the audience thinking they are being entertained. Much of the time, it works; the audience is regaled with laughter. But much of the time some of us immediately realize we ourselves are being “conned,” by contrived gags and exaggerated farce, and songs whose names alone reveal their gimmickry: “Chimp in a Suit,” “All About Ruprecht,” “Ruffhousin’ Mit Shuffhausen” and “Like Zis, Like Zat.”

The technical aspects of the production, which are always top-notch at Timber Lake, were a bit off on opening night. Although the scenery was beautifully designed and executed, the scene changes became major events, with a great deal of moving on and off and around and about. This was, I’m sure, all straightened out by the next night. Costumes were not quite up to standard, either—style and era somewhat confusing.

But, because of the expertise of Artistic Director Brad Lyons, who knows his audience and who knows how to do whatever necessary to turn out a night of fun and laughs and silliness, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels does indeed succeed with his “relaxing for the summer” audiences; and most folks will find it well worth the money and the drive into the pleasant countryside of Timber Lake.

It runs this weekend, Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 6-9. Call (815) 244-2035 for tickets.

from the August 5 – 11, 2009 issue

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