Norbert Leo Butz, John Lithgow, andSherie Rene Scott in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Norbert Leo Butz, John Lithgow, and
Sherie Rene Scott in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
No need for tuner fans to pinch themselves; the unbelievable is actually occurring. This season, the word "comedy" is being emphatically and joyfully reinserted into the phrase "musical comedy." First, there was The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, followed quickly by Altar Boyz. Now we have Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, spoof-positive that the formula refined in the 1940s and '50s for a certain brand of musical still works -- if the right people are working it.

Well, jumping Jehosaphat, the right people have linked arms to walk into the remunerative sunset under the supervision of executive producers Marty Bell and Aldo Scrofani. (The long list of the show's co-producers fancifully includes the names David Belasco, Florenz Ziegfeld, and "The Entire Prussian Army." Such tomfoolery is in keeping with the musical's flim-flam theme, which is cutely extended into the shrewd promotional campaign.) There's so much clicking into gear as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels revs its motors that a reviewer's dilemma is knowing where to start flinging the highly positive adjectives.

Do you start with John Lithgow doing a suave, 180-degree shift from his Sweet Smell of Success role of J.J. Hunsecker? Or with Norbert Leo Butz more than living up to the star-in-ascendent publicity that he's been accumulating? Or with Sherie Rene Scott, who suggests that -- in musicals, at least -- blondes really do have more fun? Do you begin with a salute to tunesmith-wordsmith David Yazbek, who comes into his own as a theater writer with this melodic, laugh-out-loud collection of adorably dopey ditties? Do you bow first to librettist Jeffrey Lane, who has adapted the Michael Caine-Steve Martin film and its antecedents into a stage piece in which sophistication and vulgarity climb into bed with each other and then mess around? Do you initially nod toward Jerry Mitchell in acknowledgment of his devil-may-care choreography, or toward the design team -- David Rockwell for his witty sets, Kenneth Posner for his bright lights, Acme Sound Partners for their discreet amplifying and mixing, Gregg Barnes for his stunning costumes? Should you commence by singling out director Jack O'Brien for again demonstrating that any show with which he's involved is going to be scintillating?

During previews, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was said to be a harmlessly fluffy entertainment about nothing much at all, but this is not the case. The show's thesis is announced in Lithgow's opening song, "Give Them What They Want." Librettist Lane and songwriter Yazbek have a definite purpose in this breezy show: They're concerned about what might potentially go haywire when people attempt to make a living -- even a delightfully illegitimate living -- based on assuming that they know what others want. (Musical-comedy producers who hold to this philosophy and come up empty-handed could learn a lesson here.) Yes, the not-great news is that Lane, Yazbek and colleagues are moralizing; the good news is that they're doing so sotto voce. The wise observer will ignore the message and enjoy the massage.

Norbert Leo Butz and castin Dirty Rotten Scoundrels(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Norbert Leo Butz and cast
in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
For those who are unfamiliar with the Caine-Martin film (screenplay by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning), as well as those who've seen but forgotten the almost instantly forgettable flick: Lawrence Jameson (Lithgow) and Freddy Benson (Butz) are scam artists working the Riviera with different approaches. Jameson, with the aid of the corruptible police chief Andre Thibault (Gregory Jbara), is all polish, while Benson is a wild man. Different as the two are, they find themselves working together to outwit an Oklahoma heiress named Jolene Oakes (Sara Gettelfinger) and then ditching their truce to take advantage of Christine Colgate (Scott), who arrives at the swankery where the fellows are based with much luggage and $50,000. There's a third hopeful American lady present for ready dalliance: Muriel Eubanks (Joanna Gleason).

If you're thinking that two men attempting to fleece rich women via far-fetched schemes and coming to like each other in the bargain is a plot reminiscent of The Producers, you've got your thinking cap on straight. But, given the many ways in which Dirty Rotten Scoundrels wows the audience, this is a non-issue. Just watch Butz, who won't be stopped, turn his body into Indian rubber when declaring his life goals in "Great Big Stuff." Watch Butz and Lithgow, who fit like Mutt and Jeff, go burlesque in "All About Ruprecht." Watch Gettelfinger get sexy in an amusingly gratuitous country-western song irreverently titled "Oklahoma?" See Butz and Scott, reunited from producer Bell's The Last 5 Years, sing a chart-worthy balled titled "Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True" and then turn it on its head. Observe as Gleason and Jbara charm the crowd with "Like Zis/Like Zat," and get a load of Mitchell's dancers twirling decoratively.

There's so much story to tell in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and so many numbers in which to tell it, that the show is undeniably longer than it needs to be. The Eubanks-Thibault coupling is a '50s-formula secondary love duo, and though the characters are engaging, they and their subplot could easily be excised. But too much of a good thing is always preferable to too little. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is naughty, bawdy fun.