Camelot Theatre’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: A New Era Ushers In Two Surprising Fresh Stars in An Effervescent Comic Musical
– by Lee Greene
When I see a really good theatrical show, it’s like I’ve been jacked into an a.c. electrical outlet and come away with a big jolt of energy. I got that big charge when I saw the opening night performance of Camelot Theatre‘s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Friday evening, Sept. 2, 2016. It is the first Camelot show completely under the control of new artistic director Roy Rains and marks the beginning of a new era for the theater. If this show represents a fair example of what’s ahead for Camelot Theatre, the company (and its audience) can look forward to a GREAT future. Rains did a fantastic job of picking a play and choosing a talented director, designers & production team members. Breaking from Camelot tradition in the past, when most artistic decisions were made top-down from the artistic director, and pressed upon the rest of the company’s production crew and cast, Rains trusted his chosen production team to use their respective talents and skills to make creative and artistic decisions thus incorporating exceptional contributions from a collection of brilliant collaborators to produce one of the best shows in Camelot Theatre’s long history. Rains’ great choices began with the selection of director Olivia Harrison, who was given the freedom to cast the roles and imprint the production with her own imaginative, creative vision. She in turn, breaking from another long-standing Camelot practice of relying primarily on a limited, exclusive and discreet group of actors, employing them again and again in role after role, instead elected to cast two vibrant young newcomers in key roles. It all works, not only producing an energetic, effervescent, delightful musical comedy, but also permitting two extraordinarily gifted young talents (Sabrina Hebert and Eoghan McDowell) to shine as stars for the first time. This show is definitely worth the price of a ticket.
Now, for those who are willing to read further, and interested: the details. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels began life as a 1988 non-musical comedic film, starring Michael Caine, Steve Martin and Glenne Headley. The film tells the story of two con artists who prey upon wealthy women tricking them out of their money: Lawrence Jameson, a well established, educated, upper class resident of a French Riviera resort, and a young unvarnished, underachieving newcomer, Freddy Benson, who upon arriving in the resort is impressed by the older man’s success at the game, and his resulting lifestyle and worldly belongings. Initially, Freddy asks Lawrence to teach him the trade, and Lawrence agrees, giving Freddy a subservient role in the cons while teaching him. But eventually, the student becomes too big for his britches, and they become rivals. Concluding that the town isn’t big enough for both of them, Lawrence proposes a bet, winner to stay, loser to leave: the first to successfully swindle $50,000 from a woman target. They both settle on the same target, a new visitor to town, a wealthy American traveler, the Glenne Headly character. And most of the rest of the film presents their often comic competition to try to extract the prize-winning sum from her. The film reaches a surprise ending, which I won’t give away here, as I don’t want to spoil that delicious conclusion for those who go see the play and don’t already know how it ends. The film received relatively favorable critical reviews. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said, “The plot … is not as complex as a movie like The Sting, and we can see some of the surprises as soon as they appear on the horizon. But the chemistry between Martin and Caine is fun, and Headly provides a resilient foil.” [RogerEbert.com, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/dirty-rotten-scoundrels-1988]
The movie was transformed into a theatrical musical comedy in 2004, which made its Broadway premiere in March 2005, with John Lithgow, Norbert Leo Butz, and Sherie Rene Scott, respectively, in the Caine, Martin and Headley roles. The show ran for 626 performances, closing in Sept. 2006. It was less well received by the critics than the film, receiving markedly mixed reviews. Ben Brantley of The New York Times compared the musical with the 2001 hit musical The Producers, also an adaptation of a film about two con men, and found it lacking in confidence and energy (“What’s missing is the galvanizing, hypnotizing energy . . . . the show just doesn’t have the self-belief, not to mention the oomph, that can make vulgarity a fine art”), though he did praise Butz’s turn as Freddy (“Mr. Butz . . . is definitely the real thing”). [Ben Brantley, The New York Times, The Art of the Con, Reprised, March 4, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/04/theater/reviews/the-art-of-the-con-reprised.html] The Broadway musical was nominated for the requisite ten Tony Awards, including best musical, best book and best score, but it won only one, Leading Actor in a Musical, for Butz’s performance as Freddy. The musical was subsequently produced in the West End in the UK, with a more favorable critical reception, and has been taken on multiple national, UK and international tours.
Which bring us now to the current Camelot Theatre production. Let me start by saying that the criticisms leveled at the Broadway production do NOT apply to Camelot’s show. In the hands of director Olivia Harrison, Mr. Rains, and the rest of Mr. Rains’ team and Ms. Harrison’s cast, this production is NOT lacking in energy, but quite the contrary, is delightfully bubbling over in energy. The performances ARE galvanizing, and the staging and choreography of the musical numbers leaves never a dull moment from start to finish. Ms. Harrison has cast Camelot veteran Erik Connolly (previously Che in Evita, Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, Caleb in The Spitfire Grill, and numerous Camelot Spotlight productions, most recently Jerry, Perry and Dean) in the older con artist, Lawrence Jameson (Michael Caine, John Lithgow) role. The part fits him like a glove, and it is easily Mr. Connolly’s best performance on the Camelot stage. Ordinarily, that would be the high point of a review of the show, but Ms. Harrison found two extraordinarily talented young newcomers (Eoghan McDowell and Sabrina Hebert, respectively) for the Freddy Benson and Christine Colgate (leading actress) roles, whose performances are so compelling, exuberant, pitch perfect and outstanding, that they even outshine a standout performance by the veteran, Mr. Connolly.
First, Mr. McDowell playing Freddy Benson. Mr. McDowell has actually appeared on the Camelot stage in three previous productions, but never in a leading or particularly substantial role (the cross gender Chantal in the recent La Cage Aux Folles, as Cord Elam in Oklahoma! and in the ensemble in Sweet Charity). The Freddy role in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels requires a well-rounded performer with a full set of skills – there are hilarious, prat fall physical comic scenes; straight dramatic pieces; solo vocals; duets with each co-star, male and female; dance numbers: solo, paired, and ensemble; and transformation from an unpolished rube to a faux gentleman aristocrat, with all the costume and make-up variations apt to the moment; fierce rivalry with the older conman, while needing to cultivate and maintain the audience’s empathy and sympathy for the less experienced younger underdog. Mr. McDowell succeeds in all of that, and knocks it out of the ballpark. He does it all with a high level of energy and enthusiasm, a deft touch – hitting the edge on all the near over-the-top comic scenes without going over, never over-acting but not underacting either – just right, and all very credible and believable. And to top it off, he sings marvelously, in tune, well enunciated, and melodious. His solo passages were well sung and his duets, especially with Mr. Connolly, were crowd pleasers. For those who have seen the film version and may have liked Steve Martin’s Freddy Benson performance, boy, are you in for a surprise. Eoghan McDowell’s Freddy Benson runs circles around Steve Martin’s. Wow!
But even THAT wasn’t the best performance in this production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Somehow, the brilliant Ms. Harrison plucked SOU vocal music major, Sabrina Hebert, who had never before appeared on the Camelot stage, from virtually out of nowhere and put her in the leading actress role in this production (Christine Colgate – Sherie Renee Scott on Broadway; Glenne Headley with a different name for the character in the film). Ms. Hebert has it ALL and commands the stage from the moment she first enters. With a million watt smile, as big as a half-moon, and a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of charisma, Ms. Hebert grabs the audience’s attention and never lets go. And what a voice! Gorgeous! If one went to the show and closed their eyes for the full duration, just listening to Ms. Hebert sing, you would still have to rate the show a triumph – a musical happening. All of the plaudits bestowed upon Mr. McDowell above – they apply DOUBLE to Ms. Hebert. She bestows the character with a never-ending supply of energy and enthusiasm; she is utterly and completely believable in the role. Her acting is pitch perfect, never underacts, never overacts, appears to have an uncanny intuitive sense of how much is just right. She’s a natural performer, and she is going to be a star (well, she already IS one!). But you want to go see her NOW, in THIS show. The thing is, both Ms. Hebert AND Mr. McDowell are so early in what promises to be their wonderful careers, that they still have a fresh innocence and enthusiasm about what they’re doing that is precious to see, and in part responsible for the energy and exuberance of their performances. Six productions later in leading roles, when they too have become stage veterans, that freshness will be missing. Chatting with Ms. Hebert after the show, she just bubbled over with excitement, that her parents surprised her by attending the opening and turning up in the audience unannounced. She can’t be expected to bubble over with that innocence very much longer. Go see her now while you can still see THAT.
Ms. Harrison’s sixth sense at casting performers in roles didn’t stop at the three leads. The entire large (11 performers) cast is populated by well chosen, talented performers, who universally deliver superior performances. Lawrence Jameson is assisted in his schemes by an “eccentric supporting character”, the less aristocratic, less debonair, French accented, “crooked police chief” Andre Thibault, who is also given “a comic romantic subplot” with “a swinging American divorcée”, Muriel Eubanks. [quoted descriptions from Ben Brantley, The New York Times, The Art of the Con, Reprised, March 4, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/04/theater/reviews/the-art-of-the-con-reprised.html] While these are not romantic leads, they are entertaining characters in the story, placed in an amusing subplot, and in another instance of inspired casting by Ms. Harrison, the roles are performed superbly in this production by Ernie Rosales and Amanda McGee respectively. Those two present the audience with an adorable, beguiling couple; the pair of short stout performers delight the audience at one point by exquisitely cutting up the dance floor together.
At another point in the story, one of the women swindled by Lawrence, Jolene Oakes, is pressing him to marry her and move to Oklahoma. Lawrence uses Freddy to pose as an outrageously repulsive brother (Ruprecht) in order to fend off Ms. Oakes. The scene is one of the most hilarious in the show, with Mr. McDowell and Mr. Connolly at their best. But for the scene to succeed also takes a fine comic performance by Shannon Carter as their foil, Jolene. Again, great casting; Ms. Carter has proven herself a top dancer and fine singer in previous Camelot productions, such as Sweet Charity and La Cage Aux Folles, but this is the first time she’s given a substantial comedic role with dialogue. Who knew she was not just a great statuesque dancer, but also a gifted comedic actress? (Apparently, Ms. Harrison did!)
As noted above, earlier productions of this show were criticized for their lack of energy and oomph. Ms. Harrison has overcome that by filling out the cast with an exuberant, energetic group of ensemble players and giving them a full complement of lively choreographed ensemble dance numbers bridging the various comic and dramatic set pieces performed by the show’s leads.
So when the audience is not being amused by the charismatic, comic and compelling performances of the leads, they are treated to high velocity eye candy: the well-orchestrated, non-stop, energetic movement of the oft-changing bold-costumed ensemble cast, including actors Joey Larimer, Dylan Spooner, and Jake Hastings, and actresses Carrie Ann Eve, Jasmin Evans, and Shannon Carter (again – the girl CAN dance, so it’d be a sin not to use her for that too!). I’m not sure just how Ms. Harrison has energized the cast for this production, but she has certainly succeeded in doing so; I can think of a few football teams which could really use her skills to rally and energize the players’ performance on the field, so it’s as sharp as the performances on stage by this cast.
Mr. Rains has aided and abetted Ms. Harrison by surrounding her with a talented group of collaborators, and giving them the freedom to exploit their respective talents to contribute to the success of this show, as mentioned in the opening paragraph. That wonderful and extensive choreography hailed above was the outstanding work of choreographer Kayla Garrett. That all of the singing in the show (solos, duets, ensemble chorus numbers), from beginning to end, was exceptional was not an accident, nor a coincidence, but the fine handiwork of skilled vocal music director, Michael Wing. The bold, eye catching and frequently changing costumes were produced by Costume Designer Addie Hall-Kester and Assistant Costume Designer Sharon Swingle. Set Designer Don Zastoupil provided a wonderful set, which was equally effective in hosting the leads’ conscribed set pieces and the ensemble’s expansive dance numbers. The set was enhanced by very effective use of rear projections, nicely setting scenes, and occasionally providing amusing, clever, special effects – I don’t want to spoil the fun by revealing what you’ll see, but pay attention during the 2nd scene (Andre and Muriel in “Magic Land”) of the Second Act. All this great projection work was the handicraft of gifted sound/video designer Brian O’Connor. Kudos to ALL, for producing one of the most entertaining and outstanding shows upon the Camelot stage, but most especially to Ms. Harrison, for her vision, her leadership in bringing all the pieces together, her amazing casting choices, and her ability to draw such exceptional performances and unqualified exuberance and energy from her cast.
It’s abundantly obvious that I enjoyed this show and I believe that you will too. But I can be forgiven for one lament, just one little thing that could possibly have made it even better. At least for this production, Camelot dispensed with live musicians, and instead the performances were accompanied by “canned” music. Do understand, there was nothing wrong with the music. It was fine. But live musicians present some advantages and benefits which are simply NOT possible with canned music. Musical theater at its best, reaches the highest pinnacles when the performers are interacting and engaged with a great audience, fine tuning their performances in the moment, and that is facilitated when live musicians are part of the equation, reacting with and adjusting the music too, in the moment, with the performers. It’s a synergy which is simply not possible when the music is canned instead. So I hope the new era at Camelot will see more live musicians and less canned accompaniment. Just saying.
Performances of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels continue through October 2 at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, Thursday thru Saturday 8:00 pm, Sunday Matinees 2:00 pm. For tickets: order online at http://bit.ly/1EO71aR, or call the box office at 541-535-5250, or in person at 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, Oregon.
All photos, except film and theater posters, by Camelot Theatre photographer Steve Sutfin.