Near the end of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” John Lithgow says to co-star Norbert Leo Butz, “What you lack in grace you certainly make up for in vulgarity.” He might have been reviewing the show. Despite its winning cast and occasional wit, this musical of the 1988 MGM comic film is a disharmonious jumble of sophisticated, urbane humor and frat-boy crassness that arrives on Broadway with far too many rough edges for a show honed in a six-week tryout run at San Diego’s Old Globe plus another five weeks of New York previews. Has the unusually robust bevy of producers been asleep?
Starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin as a pair of con men scamming rich women on the French Riviera, the Frank Oz film (itself based on the 1964 comedy “Bedtime Story,” starring David Niven and Marlon Brando) was a featherweight vehicle that didn’t exactly cry out for revisitation. That makes book writer Jeffrey Lane’s slavishly reverential approach here all the more perplexing. Particularly in the interminable first act, Lane wades with pedestrian diligence through a swamp of exposition in an almost scene-for-scene recap of the mediocre movie.
Composer-lyricist David Yazbek’s refusal to supply a punchy opening number also makes for an oddly hesitant start. As debonair cad Lawrence Jameson, Lithgow swans coolly through the ineffectual intro “Give Them What They Want” while the well-heeled women he preys upon waft aimlessly about an overpopulated stage.
As one of his more gullible dupes, wealthy divorcee Muriel Eubanks, Joanna Gleason brings warmth and personality to “What Was a Woman to Do?”
But it’s not until Butz appears as uncouth petty shyster Freddy Benson and cuts loose in his showy bid for more lucrative cons, “Great Big Stuff,” that the musical gets a fully fleshed-out song.
The plodding first act ambles through more dim women being taken for rides — notably an extended, effusively hammy bit with Sara Gettelfinger as a trigger-happy redneck oil heiress, highlighted in the boisterous, cowboy-backed number “Oklahoma” — with Freddy enlisted to scare them off when they get too intent on marriage via his posing as Lawrence’s drooling, simple-minded brother.
Not until close to intermission does the female lead appear, with the two con artists placing bets on who can extract $50,000 from American “soap queen” Christine Colgate (Sherie Rene Scott) first. This delayed entrance might have been fine in the movie, but here it serves to marginalize a key character.
There’s no shortage of broad laughs — and there may be no shortage of an audience for them — along with a smattering of more cultivated humor. But the show brings into question once again the wisdom of mutating movies into musicals that don’t necessarily lend themselves to the switch. What makes it so disappointing is the reunion of some key creatives from the delightful “Hairspray,” itself a fun, frivolous movie that emerged from its cocoon as an entirely different species of butterfly.
In this lumpy transfer, “Scoundrels” makes no such gains. Director Jack O’Brien this time brings a by-the-numbers approach, while choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s dance moves rarely develop into anything substantial. Kenneth Posner’s lighting overloads on pastels, and designer David Rockwell — whose vibrant candy-colored sets for “Hairspray” were knockout pop artifacts — clutters the stage with bejeweled creations like stylized stained-glass palm trees that give the glitzy show a cheap and tacky ’80s look at times and a chic allure at others, notably in the ornate hotel lobby set. Gregg Barnes’ costumes are dapper enough on the men but grossly unflattering on most of the women, especially Gleason. If the intention was to convey the gauche taste of nouveau riche Riviera broads, it doesn’t venture far enough into parody to work.
As he showed in “The Full Monty,” Yazbek’s strength is in his cleverly constructed lyrics, not his pleasant but unremarkable pop- and jazz-inflected melodies. Here, he seems to be shopping around through most of the show for a musical style that fits, giving it a piecemeal feel that echoes the design. And while “Monty” had heart and grit, “Scoundrels” is charmless. The humor is often puerile, the incessant jokes about the French are tired, and the nudge-wink, out-of-character asides designed to break down the fourth wall by commenting on set changes, musical conventions, etc., have a whiff of desperation.
What saves the show to some degree is the cast. Lithgow is a smooth pro who can play this kind of supercilious, self-possessed character in his sleep; the limitations of his vocals are really a problem only on the rueful ballad “Love Sneaks In.”
Much has been made in terms of advance trumpeting about the arrival of a new Broadway star in Butz, a truly talented musical comedy performer with a rich, nuanced singing voice and a lively, eccentric command of verbal and physical comedy; he comes across like John C. Reilly by way of Jerry Lewis. But while the initially begrudging affection between the odd couple lends a pleasing color to the perfs, both Lithgow and Butz play too aggressively to the audience.
Ultimately, the characters embody the show’s irreconcilable high-class/low-class schizophrenia. With Lithgow taking a self-effacing back seat to Butz’s dominant mugging, the coarse aspects of Freddy win out. “A life of taste and class/With culture and sophistication pouring out my ass,” he coos. The show gives free rein to its baser impulses; for every droll Yazbek lyric, there’s a cringe-inducing undergraduate one.
Scott makes a strong impression, both in her confidently delivered songs and in her appealing balance of demureness with a veiled hint of brassy calculation. The natural ease Gleason brings to a thankless role is gracefully paired with Gregory Jbara as Andre, a crooked cop in cahoots with Lawrence.
The relationship that blossoms unsuspectingly between Muriel and Andre is the only significant plot addition to the movie, spawning a sweet duet in “Like Zis/Like Zat.” Unfortunately, Lane can’t resist fishing for easy laughs with lurid postcoital dialogue that seems unworthy of the performers. It’s as if the creators have made a golden age screwball comedy channeled through a grossout Farrelly brothers sensibility.