Theatre Royal, October 24
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the best new musical to hit Sydney this century. For much longer than that – nearly 40 years – most musicals have been asinine. Part of the problem has lain with the music. What was the composer supposed to do? Churn out generic Broadway songs that sounded clichéd and limp, or pound out equally clichéd rock that was almost inherently designed to thwart the best efforts of the lyricist? Then the jukebox musical blundered along, and turned the form into a cash-and-carry commodity. Becoming more operatic or arty seemed to be the only ways out.
Not quite. David Yazbeck and Jeffrey Lane have hit upon another, all-but-forgotten possibility: reviving wit and charm.
Based on the amusing 1988 film that starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels does something miraculous by actually improving on its source material. Lane’s lively book apart, this is largely down to David Yazbeck’s penning the wittiest lyrics to grace a musical since the likes of Cole Porter, Alan Jay Lerner or Stephen Sondheim were in their pomp. His words bounce and writhe on his own tunes, which, in turn, occasionally remind one of Porter or early Sondheim.
This exceptional local production marks a triumphant home-coming for Tony Sheldon as Lawrence Jameson (the Caine character), paired with an inspired Matt Hetherington as Freddy Benson (the Martin character). Amy Lehpamer has endless fun effervescing as Christine Colgate, the woman who cunningly swindles the swindlers.
John Wood and Anne Wood become ever more of a delight in the sex-charged, sub-plot, with the latter’s singing also shining. Katrina Retallick completes the principals and damned near steals the show in a side-splitting turn as Jolene Oakes, the oil heiress from Oklahoma.
The ensemble members maintain this high standard, as does every aspect of the production, including the Roger Hodgman’s direction and Dana Jolly’s choreography. Michael Hankin’s refreshingly simple set keeps the focus on the performers and on Teresa Negroponte’s sensational use of colour in her costumes, enhanced by Nicholas Rayment’s lighting. Even more splendid is the fact that a real 18-piece orchestra under Guy Simpson inhabits the pit, and its sound, almost novelly rich and animated, lifts the whole show and blends perfectly with the voices.
At first it seemed Hetherington might not be a match for Sheldon, but that doubt was swiftly assuaged by a truly hilarious performance. If Sheldon’s version of Jameson is not quite as suave as the character ultimately might be, his actual performance is consummately polished, and his exemplary comic timing maximises his role’s every laugh (and more).
The only real gripe is that the story drags in the last 10 minutes: a fault, it would seem, of the writing rather than the direction. Otherwise Dirty Rotten Scoundrels trumpets the good news that musical theatre is not quite dead in the water yet.