The French Riviera might make hopeless romantics of us all, but if you fall for Lawrence Jamieson or Freddy Benson you might lose more than your heart. The lead con men in Marquette Theatre’s latest show are known to leave women swooning and sans wallets, watches and diamond lavalieres everywhere they go.
Opening Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Helfaer Theatre, Marquette’s production of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” employs a 17-member cast, 10-piece professional band and a whole lot of intrigue.
The bawdy musical comedy follows the escapades of the two suave scam artists in a vacation resort in the South of France. Based on a 1988 film directed by Frank Oz, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is full of backstabbing tricks, Mel Brooks-style sex comedy and classic Broadway pizazz.
The show begins in the world of Lawrence Jamieson, played by Armando Ronconi, a junior in the College of Communication. He lives in a luxurious resort in the French Riviera full of high-rolling ladies to con for cash.
Jamieson is the kind of man who could pull off an ascot. Played by Michael Caine in the original film, the musical’s Lawrence retains Caine’s brand of debonair. Equipped with salt and pepper hair, a dry British humor and vanity that says “everything will go my way,” Lawrence has gotten so good at the con game he’s grown restless. As one of his marks proclaims he’s already too “God damn continental.”
Enter Freddy Benson, played by Peter Sisto, a junior in the College of Education. Played by Steve Martin in the film, Benson is more street-smart con man than Jamieson’s high-class snootiness. With a penchant for slapstick comedy and manipulating female sympathies, Benson reminds Jamieson of his younger, rougher scamming days.
The pair proceed to woo a series of women, working at times alone, together and finally in a fierce competition for riches and glory full of sabotage, disguise and enough dance numbers to keep even the biggest jazz square fan satisfied.
It appears the show’s women have come to the Riviera for just the kind of love the con men promise. Hailing from exotic places like Cincinnati, Nebraska and Oklahoma, the three female leads add to the show’s character. The female marks range from a gauche American divorcee (Alexis Hamburg, a senior in the College of Communication) to the southern belle with a song as big as her impressively poofed hair (Ava Thomann, a junior in the College of Communication) and finally to the prize scam, the naïve Christine played by Molly Edwards, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences.
The show’s set is appropriately glamorous with grand staircases and a stage dressed as a marble ballroom floor. Stagehands look like bell hops, scenes are full of fancy decor and there’s even appearances by a chorus of French maids. If that weren’t enough, Jamieson sports a posh right-hand man, Andre, played by Kyle Conner, a junior in the College of Communication, who speaks in a thick French accent so that you know zhey are in ze Riveria, no?
“I found a lot of inspiration form Lumiere (from ‘Beauty and the Beast’),” Conner said. “At the beginning, I think mastering any accent can just be a mountain because you are just judging yourself. But Chris (Flieller), our dialect coach, was a tremendous help for us. But (the accent) also came along after watching hours of YouTube clips of Lumiere.”
Flieller worked as the show’s dialect coach to help the cast master an impressive mix of accents with Austrian, English, Southern as well as French dialects prominent in the plot.
Flieller also happens to be married to the show’s director, Jane Flieller. The couple has worked together for more than 15 years at In Tandem Theatre, located just around the corner from Marquette’s Straz Tower.
This show marks Jane Flieller’s first time directing a Marquette production.
“I grew up in musical theater in high school and community theater and college. But my company is small and when we do musicals they’re more compact,” she said. “It was so much fun to put my hands on a show that needed a choreographer, a music director and lots of costumes.”
“The bad news is the music is stuck in my head, the good news is it’s a different song every day, they’re all so widely different. And that excites me. It was really fun to have that folio of genres,” Jane Flieller said. “And even though it’s set in the modern day it’s also got that elegant feel of a different era.”
Though the show is relatively contemporary, much of the production has the air of classic musical theater shows like “Guys & Dolls.” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is only nine years old, premiering in 2004 to win 10 Tony nominations in 2005, yet in the show the women can still be “dames” or “broads,” themen still say “swell,” and ball gowns and classic military uniforms are worn with ease.
But “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” has a bit more bite than “golden-age” favorites. There are a few choice words, for instance, you would never find in “My Fair Lady” and some risque scenes to designate the show as part of a more modern school of musical comedy. The humor is modern with moments of meta-humor and ripping George W. Bush to fit with the more recent irreverence of shows like “The Producers” and “Urinetown,” which Marquette Theatre took on at the end of last year.
“I think there is a modern edge to (‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’),” Thomann said. “Which I appreciate there is more of that modern twist.”
With enough glamor to recall the good old days and a modern take on what a musical can be, Marquette Theatre’s newest show should have the stuff to, as its opening number proclaims, “give the people what they want.”