“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” has charmed Broadway 17 months and should have no problem raking it in on the road. “Scoundrels,” which posted a closing notice of Sept. 3 on Broadway Thursday, is a crowd-pleaser of the first order: mightily musical and terribly funny. Norbert Leo Butz, repeating his Tony-winning turn as raffish grifter Freddy Benson, is making choices that are as fresh and skillful as ever; he continually turns on a dime from deadpan repartee to manic farce. Surely he’s getting a lift from Tom Hewitt, the new man playing his foil, aging Lothario and flimflammer Lawrence Jameson.
Reprieved from the Goth drag usually foisted upon him by Broadway (“Dracula: The Musical,” “The Rocky Horror Show”), Hewitt wears Lawrence’s urbanity and Armani with equal aplomb. Blessed with terrific pipes and comic versatility, Hewitt nonetheless lacks the pre-existing TV recognizability and likeability of original star John Lithgow and faces a tougher challenge in winning aud over. But win them over he does. From first to last he is, simply put, smashing.
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Freddy and Lawrence? Think of them as Bob and Bing, and the plot as “Road to Riviera.” Even more so than the 1988 film (itself adapted from 1964’s “Bedtime Story”), the tale is structured as the clash of friendly enemies: both going after the same girl, each more interested in hoodwinking the other than deceiving any of their marks. While the story is an elaborate skein of impersonations and double-crosses, the plot mechanics are always less important than the dynamic between the leads. Butz and Hewitt’s nicely honed double act sustains that dynamic throughout.
It’s not just the basic story that recalls the 1940s and ’50s. Creators’ greatest inspiration is to put a modern spin on the conventions of the musical’s so-called Golden Age, the time when every show didn’t feel the need to be “about something.” Director Jack O’Brien and librettist Jeffrey Lane have thoroughly studied the classic musical playbook — they have added a romantic “second couple” not in the original, included an overture and entr’acte (almost unheard of today) and used olio curtains to play scenes “in one” as sets are changed behind. (Lane even evokes the biggest Golden Age hit of all when Lawrence agrees to mold Freddy into a first-class con artist by saying, as Henry Higgins did of Eliza, “He’s so deliciously low — so horribly dirty.”)
The result is a bit of a con that Lawrence and Freddy would appreciate: once lulled into a sense of security, aud is willing to grant the show the license to ramp up the frat house humor and push any number of buttons. And that it certainly does, rivaling “There’s Something About Mary” and even “Jackass” in its blue language, jibes at the disabled and foreigners and over-the-top vulgar horseplay. Yet played with such blissful innocence within the sugar-candy pastel environment provided by David Rockwell, scene after scene feels like the best of old-time burlesque.
Score, too, hearkens back to the past. David Yazbek could be a reincarnation, in one man, of the lamented Adler and Ross of “Pajama Game” fame, who wrote for the stage but kept one eye on the pop charts. In “The Full Monty” and even more so in “Scoundrels,” Yazbek is at home with both comedy numbers tied closely to context, and hummable stand-alone love songs.
Every aspect of this production exudes showmanship, from Rockwell’s gorgeous forced-perspective sets that wittily suggest “something’s a little off here,” to the colorful costumes and evocative lighting, to the five-piece pit orchestra that sounds like more than twice their number. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell and ensemble get few opportunities for full-out dance but leave the impression of constant elegant motion nevertheless. Cast offers the leads strong support, with Laura Marie Duncan as the object of both men’s affection, and Hollis Resnik as an enterprising divorcee, equaling the original performers.