In trying to recover the ground that was its own before the miseries of the British invasion set in, the Broadway musical has put itself into a state that more and more resembles schizophrenia. Half of it wants to be old-fashioned fun in the Cole Porter-Irving Berlin-Rodgers & Hart tradition that produced such a profusion of immortal songs; the other half wants desperately to appeal to a television-bred younger generation that never heard of any of these people or their songs, and knows only rock and hip-hop. This involves straddling an aesthetic gulf far wider than the one the musical had always contended with, which was the necessity of pleasing people of many different tastes in the same evening. The traditional double plot, involving a romantic couple and a comedy couple, with a few raffish character actors and an occasional “specialty” artist thrown in, was enough to satisfy people of all ages and inclinations from the 1920s through the ’50s, just as it had satisfied audiences in the days of Shakespeare, Garrick, and Boucicault. But to go from the old varieties of show tune to the overwrought arioso style of pop-rock or the verbal barrages of rap means going from one entire species of music to another, when the two are produced in very different ways for almost antithetical purposes. The results are not always disastrous, but they do tend to fall short in the effectiveness department, since the two styles cancel each other out.
This sense of a split cultural personality is very evident in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, about half of which is a very pleasant and not unwitty old-style musical that seems to have been blown up way out of proportion, while the other half is a crass, laborious earache. I should explain that this has nothing to do with the division between the two con men who are its title characters, though one (John Lithgow) is meant to be a suave, cultured Continental type and the other (Norbert Leo Butz) a relentlessly lowbrow American. In fact, the coarseness to which Butz and the lyrics descend during one hilarious scene are as firmly in the old tradition as Lithgow’s airily dapper way of tossing off a patter song; the new style is more clearly ensconced in the overmic’ed colorlessness of the show’s ballads, and in the constant clutter of bland moving scenery and characterless ensemble dances that show the producers’ commitment to gratifying the MTV crowd, whose eyes must apparently never be allowed to rest.
This is a pity, because if the noise and clutter were cleared away, there would be a lot to enjoy in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Like Little Women, it’s a show that desperately needs to be cut down, reworked for a much more intimate theater, and most of all unplugged. Both Lithgow and Butz are charming in their very different ways, as are Gregory Jbara and Joanna Gleason in secondary roles. A fair number of the lines in Jeffrey Lane’s script are worth at least a chuckle, and even some of the groaners are of the good-old-days kind that make you smile as you groan. And although David Yazbek’s music is thin on melody, his lyrics are often truly wonderful, flamboyantly funny in a freewheeling way that’s a big step forward from his work on The Full Monty. They’re also contemporary in a more meaningful way than the show’s heavy-breathing efforts to get down: Using old-style wit and versification while stepping over taste boundaries, they give the show a 2005 equivalent of the brashness that made ’20s and ’30s musicals feel so alive in their own time.
The booster shot they give is necessary, because Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has problems even before its style starts going culturally schizo. Based on an undistinguished old movie that’s based on an unwatchable even older movie, its tenuous story feels badly dated—when was the last time rich, dumb American women went to the Riviera in search of a dethroned prince to flirt with?—and lacks forward drive. Its two non-heroes don’t want anything in particular, except more money from conning more women; and we don’t particularly care which of them will win the bet about who can or can’t con. This distinguishes the show from a romp like The Producers, in which Leo and Max want a single specific thing, and we like them enough to want to find out if they’ll get it. In addition, Lithgow and Butz tend to be appealing individually rather than as a duo, while Sherie Rene Scott, as the female pigeon with whom they both fall in love, is obliged to be all sweet vulnerability for most of the evening, though the best aspect of her stage persona is strictly sass and brass. In one of the graver miscalculations of Jack O’Brien’s production, she has her thunder stolen, right before her entrance, by Sara Gettelfinger as a dumb-like-a-fox oil heiress, whose one relentless number makes so much noise that the audience is too exhausted to notice Scott’s arrival. Like other aspects of the show, this wrong move is a matter of resources misdeployed rather than lacking. Strip away the noise and excess and you might find something very much worth watching. Whether there would be anyone to watch it, on a Broadway that has committed itself to supplying a supposed public’s craving for noise and excess, is a question to which nobody yet knows the answer.