Skip to main content

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Photo by Kurt Sneddon

James Anthony productions and George Youakim in association with Youakim Investments presents DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, Book by Jeffrey Lane. Music and Lyrics by David Yazbeck at the Theatre Royal, King St. Sydney.

DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is the best production of a musical that I have seen in Sydney for a very long time.

DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUDRELS is a kind of ‘buddy-grifter-screwball’ comedy with music. The Book by Jeffery Lane, based on the 1988 film written by Dale Lauder and Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning – starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin – is a preposterous confection of low life skullduggery and scheming that is a laugh-out-loud joy. I found myself surprised and delighted at the silly-stupid audacity of it all. Combined, then, with Music and Lyrics by David Yabeck – he has also written for the musical theatre: THE FULL MONTY (2000) and WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (2010) – the story is catapulted into an entertainment realm of guaranteed outrageous wit and verve. Think of vulgar, daring turn of phrase, and rhyme – material to match the low life world of this gang of ‘crooks’ on the Riviera – and, remember back, when you laughed at the similar cleverness of a Stephen Sondheim musical/lyric challenge (say, COMPANY (1970), SWEENEY TODD (1979) and many others). This production at the Theatre Royal in Sydney is directed by Roger Hodgman

Add the wit and style of six actors of consummate skill: Tony Sheldon, as the super suave con-man, Lawrence Jameson; Matt Hetherington as the declasse ‘apprentice’, Freddy Benson; Amy Lehpamer, as the ‘wealthy’ ingenue target of the ‘evil-doers’, Christine Colgate, with a crocodile smile – be warned; John Wood, as the confidant and cooperate cop, Andre Thibault; Anne Wood, as Muriel Eubanks, a woman with more money than sexual satisfaction; and Katrina Retallick, the heiress from hell, or, Oklahoma, Jolene Oakes, and then you have the right ingredients for a sure aimed enfilade of mirth packed bullets to keep you happily pinned to your seats with amusement.

Many years ago,Tony Sheldon introduced me to the magic of the music theatre as Oliver at the old Theatre Royal, Castlereagh St. (Andrew Sharp as The Artful Dodger; Toni Lammond as Nancy, my first professional theatre)  and now he revives that magical thrill of the musical theatre long longed for, in recent times, to match that experience, in this Theatre Royal, King St. Mr Sheldon returns to the Australian stage after a long and successful sojourn on the West End, London and Broadway, New York, stages. It seemed to me that Mr Sheldon, as Lawrence, is now playing with supreme powers and confidence – so relaxed and so in command of his material, and us, his audience, not needing to prove himself to us, but, rather gift us with his accumulated theatrical technique. A purring well oiled instrument of rare value on our musical theatre stage, placing precisely and delicately his opportunities, for best effect, sometimes, recalling fondly, wittily other artistes (were there guffs of ‘Guilgudean’ mimicry, in some snuffled laughs from this Lawrence, or, was it just my imagination working overtime with provoked delight?)

Mr Hetherington plays, nicely harnessed in the flamboyant and dangerous possible excesses of the low, low comic role of Freddy, with masterful hysteria, balancing expertly with physical confabulations of Chaplinesque/Stooges extremities, to beautifully counterbalance the poise and elegance of his partner-in-crime, Mr Sheldon. A duo of meshing professional restraints that elevates their comedy teaming to a higher art form of considerable taste and charm of effort, which has, of late, been much missed, on our stages.

Ms Lehpamer as Christine Colagate flouncing an innocence and femininity in ‘frocks’ of flaring good taste and decorum, holds her own against the humorous forces of her two leading men, and triumphs in her White Swan/Black Swan turnabout, with just the right tough/brittle armoury when needed. The costume designer of this production,Teresa Negroponte, has given a visual lift and wit to all the characterisations in this production to some sensational effect. Ms Lehpamer has all the gossamer lightness of good character costume design to assist the actor, further, to easily win the audience’s admiration and sympathy.

Ms Negroponte brings that brilliant designer’s eye  again to the costume enhancement of the towering creation of Ms Retallick as a tornado of moneyed crassness, Joylene Oakes. Ms Rettalick gives a performance of powerhouse comic cleverness and unforgettable impact, her two musical numbers,”Oklahoma?” and “All About Ruprecht” -a trio with Mr Sheldon and Hetherington – could be encored again and again – almost good enough reasons to see the show again! In lesser company a play stealer of a performance.

Anne Wood and John Wood give contrapuntal effect to all the madness around them with tenderly judged rom-com, for characters of a certain age – not, however light of boldness and in-yer-face contemporary sexual allusions, appetites, of course – the show IS called Dirty Rotten Scoudrels, is it not? I have talked of the comic acting and now compliment the singing from all – even, unexpectedly from Mr Wood of famed TV land (and Mr Wood, [in- house-joke], Keith Bain is smiling at you every night, I’m certain – maybe, even, Ms Barr as you soft shoe around that stage!)

I have not seen such depth of talent in a collection of principals on the Sydney musical stage for a long time, or, or have seen such an ensemble of inspired and inspiring performers in this genre, sparking off each other so creatively. These six artists seem to relish and love the show they are in and are interested in making the WRITING really reveal itself to give us a great comic story propelled with insightful and rich characterisations.

This production of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS contrasts my experience at GREASE***, last week, where I felt I was watching individual celebrities vying for personal attention at the expense of the theatrical realities of the vehicle – i.e. in not presenting real character and believable action within the limitations and possibilities of the writing (which we know can work, we have seen the film),  and thereby,  diminishing the genre, ultimately disrespecting the audience’s intelligence, and plundering the art form that can give artists satisfaction, if respected and worked at, (as opposed to what I thought I saw: celebrity self-aggrandisement). And because most of the audience responds – they love their reality talent shows, too – at a certain level, does not make it good work or a justifiable way to choose to create and ‘play’.

The DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS company, throughout the chorus role call of singers/dancers/actors here, are similarly disciplined and creditable in all their tasks. The choreography by Dana Jolly is witty and compact – the tongue-in-cheek touches of the palm tree choreography, being, just that, Cheeky! –  cooperating with the verve of the lyric and music, from the orchestra of 18, conducted with sparkling muscular energy by Guy Simpson, and the imaginative decoration of the costumes (Ms Negroponte, take another bow).

The Set Design by Michael Hankin is elegant and smooth in its many blue velvet curtain scene shifts, and works well within obvious budget restraints (this element of Sydney/Australian productions always pales against the design executions of the Broadway experience – look to the recent elegant design production from Broadway, seen in this very theatre, earlier this year: DRIVING MISS DAISY, to apprehend my observation. Nicholas Rayment works wonders to keep our eye on the strength of the work- the performers.

All of this excellence must be given to the credit of the Director Roger Hodgman and the Producers who seem to have set, for me, certainly, a new bench mark of expectation for the Australian Musical Theatre experience.

Here is a present of laughter for your cherished, and a memory that equals my wonderment of the memory of my first Musical Theatre, Professional Theatre experience, from days of yore: OLIVER!

P.S. When the old THEATRE ROYAL, Castlereagh St. was demolished, it had to be replaced by another theatre space, hence, this THEATRE ROYAL, King St. If this THEATRE ROYAL is to be demolished or ‘lost’ as recently reported, I hope the Sydney City Council and The NSW Government is just as demanding. as their wise predecessors were. Visiting Melbourne last week and seeing all the “BIG” commercial spaces available, puts Sydney’s paucity of that resource (tourist attracting resource!) shockingly, clearly into perspective. Space for space, Mr O’Farrell, and then some – the new Casino building?!!!