‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’

I suppose it was time for those "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" to show up again. Although filmed for the first time in 1964 as "A Bedtime Story," starring Marlon Brando and David Niven and again in 1988 as "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, neither film attained its comedic potential. Now there is "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" as a big brash Broadway musical version that is not only a good deal funnier than either film but also boasts a sparkling cast and a refreshing score that will keep you grinning long after you leave the theater. The wonderfully mismatched John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz are now going through their hilariously prescribed paces as a pair of incompatible con men bumbling their way to bilking wealthy women of their fortunes on the Riviera.

Although the musical’s book by Jeffrey Lane appears to follow the screenplay, perhaps a little too reverentially, it manages to score more laughs per minute than did either of the films. Looking around I noticed more than a few critics unable to contain their laughs.

Lithgow, who won a Tony for his performance in the short-lived musical "The Sweet Smell of Success," is having his well-earned share of success as the suave, sophisticated rogue Lawrence Jameson. Butz, who recently created the role of Fiyero in "Wicked," appears headed for a Tony this spring for his zany performance as the uncouth small-time scammer Freddy Benson. Buoyed in their nitwitted schemes and scams by David Yazbek’s zinger of a score, they are a blast and a half co-mingling their incongruous natures.

These beguiling scammers get more than they bargained for with deliciously deadpan Joanna Gleason, as an amusingly unruffled millionairess. Sara Gettlefinger earns hearty laughs as the gun-slinging gregarious Texas oil heiress out to rope Lithgow into marriage. But the boys may have met their match when they bet which one of them can extort $50,000 from an American "soap queen," cunningly played by Sherie Rene Scott. Gregory Jbara also scores as a crooked cop on Lithgow’s payroll.

Yes, the plot rambles forward and the jokes tumble forth without regard for good taste or for the number of gorgeous showgirls it takes to slither their way through set designer David Rockwell’s ever-gliding palm trees. The "Hairspray team" of Jack O’Brien (direction) and Jerry Mitchell (choreography) have again opted for a retro flavor and style for this show, a no holds barred visit to musical comedy from the good old days. ***

"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," Imperial Theater, 249 West 45th Street. $41.25 tp $101.25. 212-239-6200.

‘Monty Python’s Spamalot’

Know at the outset that Monty Python fans are legion as well as loyal, and that there is little a critic can say that will curb a Pythonhead’s enthusiasm, or indeed, endorsement of "Spamalot," the musical treatment of their Arthurian antic film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." This is a show that takes no prisoners, especially those who may have no inkling what on earth is going on. For the rest, the sprawl of idiotic scenes, familiar dialogue, symbols, illusions, and irreverent inferences that have long been cherished are calculated to get the desired responses.

Under the assured direction of Mike Nichols, "Spamalot" succeeds handily in its quest to push a fan’s responsive buttons. This musical romp is probably as close in spirit to a midnight showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" as Broadway has ever seen. On the night I attended, many in the audience felt compelled to shout out choice bits of dialogue as a Greek chorus, French accents included, and anticipate with relish each and every broadly turned scene. The actors appear only too eager to assure them that every inanity has been preserved and pickled to perfection.

There may be some who will take exception to the show’s stars – David Hyde Pierce, Tim Curry, and Hank Azaria, along with a fine supporting company – for not quite achieving that sense of ensemble that defined the original Brits. Except for the impeccably laid-back imbecility that propels Curry, as King Arthur, the rest seem to be working a lot harder to achieve what Curry does with his unique air of abstract daffiness.

During the show’s opening segment, "Dik Od Triaanenen Fol," an hilariously danced and pranced spoof of a Finnish musical, the company suddenly realizes it is in the wrong country and we are post haste transported to merry olde England, where Michael McGrath, who plays Arthur’s lackey, Patsy, gets the show off on the right hoof, as he gets his imaginary horse to go clippity clop by his deft use of two coconuts.

If the musical exchanges the more modest look of the television show with plenty of high tech glitz and gaudy settings (sets and costumes by Tim Hatley), the fearlessly funny special effects that recreate such memorable moments as catapulted cows, the killer bunny, and the knights who say, "Ni," appear, as they should, as more essential than the actual if circuitous quest by Arthur and his slap-dash knights for the holy grail. The book and lyrics by Eric Idle and the music by John Du Pres & Eric Idle are perfectly in synch with the silliness afoot that also supports the musical/comical panache of both Azaria, as the brave Lancelot, and Pierce, as the amusingly prudish Sir Robin.

However, the show’s best surprise is the show-stopping singing of Sara Ramirez, who embroiders her role as the sexy singing Lady of the Lake with some side-splitting parodies of Liza Minnelli, Cher, and other easily recognized divas who know how to sell a song on the Las Vegas strip. The choreography by Casey Nicholaw is designed to keep everyone moving, if purposefully without much grace but with plenty of momentum. "Spamalot" may be graceless, formless, and occasionally tasteless, but it is packed with a recklessly imagined zaniness that is surprisingly refreshing. *** (for fans) ** (others)

"Monty Python’s Spamalot," Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th Street. 212-239-6200.

On Broadway

The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you

should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.

Ticket Numbers

Broadway and Off-Broadway reservations can be made through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200; Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; and Ticketmaster, 212-307-4100.

Tony Report

It was already more than 30 minutes into the Tony Awards ceremonies last Sunday evening and I was almost relieved that my byline had been inadvertently omitted from last week’s Preview issue in which I humbly predicted the winners, of course, based on absolutely nothing but my instincts and the fact that I had seen every one of the shows under consideration.

At that point, I was already on record for incorrectly picking the winner in the first three categories. By the end of the evening I was redeemed by having actually picked 19 winners correctly out the 25 under consideration. As predicted, "Doubt" took four awards including Best New Play. Although "Spamalot" would take the most coveted prize for Best Musical, it only received a total of three awards (from the 14 categories for which it had been nominated) compared to the six wins (the most for any show) earned by the rapturous but more high-brow "The Light in the Piazza."

My reaction: It was the best Tony Awards show in years: as host, the phenomenally talented actor Hugh Jackman gave an award-deserving performance; the acceptance speeches were kept short and mostly touching; all the musical numbers were dynamite; and Christina Applegate showed the world that there doesn’t necessarily have to be a discernable difference between dancing with or without a broken foot.

Editor’s note: Simon Saltzman’s byline was erroneously left off of "A Critics Picks for the Tonys" in the June 1 issue.

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