What: “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels “
When: Now through June 26
Where: Illusion Theater (528 Hennepin Ave.)
Frank Oz’s 1988 comedic tale of two swindlers amid a luxurious French Riviera backdrop is really all about its two star cons. The narrative is buoyantly Steve Martin’s fast-and-loose charlatan, Freddy Benson, and his constant turf war with Michael Caine’s deceptively debonair Lawrence Jamieson.
In the absence of such blinding star power, David Yazbek (musician and lyricist) and Jeffrey Lane (author) seem to subtly shift their agendas in their musical interpretation. The Minneapolis Musical Theatre only embellishes this transition by turning the thematic focus from the con artists to the conned.
These filmic musical adaptations have been a contemporary fashion. American cinema has quite the kitsch catalog to pull from. MMT even offered their rendition of “Evil Dead: The Musical” last fall. For director Lori Maxwell, a musical interpretation seemed to suit the source material.
“[The film’s] fun and the pace is certainly adaptable,” she said. “I love the speed that the story unravels at. That certainly lends itself to a stage and musical adaptation.”
Part of the film’s initial stage appeal stems from its lavish setting — a feasible reality for a Broadway production, but a daunting task for a local company.
“We’re talking French Riviera. It’s a richness and a wealth that none of us as actors certainly come in touch with,” Maxwell, who has been the company’s music director since 2007, said. “It was really about trying to build a sense of grandeur about the whole thing.”
Regardless of the challenge, the production ploys small tricks to buff up the grandiosity of the locale. Characters never waste opportunities to climb atop one of the two balconies. The supporting ensemble’s expanse of costume changes and dance numbers also flesh out the vibrancy of the story. Maxwell’s eye for such techniques may have come from a conscious distancing from her pre-existing renditions of the comedy.
“I had both as references, but I really only tried to look at them to see what they did,” she said. “I didn’t want to repeatedly visit them, because I really wanted to bring our own sense and space to the story.”
Luckily, Yazbek’s music and lyrics also bolster the show’s diversity. The rainbow of alter egos that the two crooks continue to don allow for an equally diverse blend of lyrical jest,many moments drawing from the pallet of supporting characters as well. Actress Alex Kotlarek carries one of the show highlights in her square-danceable ode to American ignorance, “Oklahoma.” The number shows her loveable Bible Belt character, Jolene Oaks, carrying Jamieson (played by MMT artistic director Steven Meerdink) in over his cunning head.
“I think we can catch people off guard by the richness and wealth of it all when it’s really very low-life,” Maxwell said.
And that’s what Maxwell has teased out of the original book and music. In spite of the plush elegance of the story’s environment, each character is perpetually seeking some sort of crude self-interest. It’s all these small cogs of depravity that have come together to make such an enjoyably depraved whole.
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