Police and Thieves

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels warms our miserable hearts

Once upon a time in America, the liberal artistic elite actually touted the milk-fed merits of life in the heartland. Think Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!,in which salt-of-the-earth cowpokes and bosomy fertile Myrtles served as hormone-infused, song-and-dance templates for the vigorous, vital Americans who would go on to weather the Great Depression and conquer fascism on distant shores.

Advance the frame 50 years, and you get a much different spin, as shown by a small but revealing scene from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the impossibly entertaining and shit-for-brains Broadway musical sensation pitching its tent at the Orange County Performing Arts Center through Sept. 10.

Lawrence (an immaculately cast Tom Hewitt), a debonair European con man who preys on the romantic fantasies of American women in order to swindle them out of cash and jewelry, successfully woos an apparently flighty heiress from a rich Oklahoma oil family. Like everyone in this play, she's fallen for the suave Lawrence and is hell-bent on whisking him back to the plains to meet her family. Her wooing song "Oklahoma!" is perfectly punctuated, as the enthusiasm of Rodgers and Hammerstein's idyllic homage to spit-and-gumption Sooners is now turned into a cynical account of gun-toting, varmint-shooting, Jew-loathing, shit-kicking rubes.

Hold me up. Photo by Chris Bennion/Courtesy OCPAC
Hold me up. Photo by Chris Bennion/Courtesy OCPAC

True, perhaps. Funny, undeniably. But, in light of the red vs. blue state divide that most of us seem sure exists in this nation, mostly just predictable.

Then again, no one expects a boffo Broadway smash (this production is the first national tour of the show that got bitch-slapped at the 2005 Tony Awards: one win in 11 nominations) to possess subtlety, taste or depth. And thankfully (from an entertainment standpoint), Dirty Rotten Scoundrelslacks all of it.

This is an irrepressibly insouciant and hilarious musical, one of the best to emanate from the East Coast pit of entertainment perdition in years. Everything from its glitzy sets and scantily clad chorus girls to its remarkable casting—paced by the new big comedic thing on Broadway, Norbert Leo Butz—recalls both old-school Broadway showmanship and postmodern cheekiness (characters who talk about the plot, actors surfacing in the audience or orchestra pit).

And even though you can't help thinking that the show's creators—who based the play on the 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin—had a great time dissing "common" Americans, Dirty Rotten Scoundrelsstill trades in the mythological Americana that's made the musical this country's most enduring contribution to the world of theater. There's traces of Jesse James and Butch and Sundance in the thieves who rob from the rich but who possess a dollop of love in their larcenous hearts, and an equally recognizable Beverly Hillbilliesstrain, in which the wide-eyed optimism and class-shattering hubris of Americans easily match the cunning, sophisticated guile of Europeans.

In short, Dirty Rotten Scoundrelsmay occasionally target dumb-ass rednecks, but ultimately it glorifies all those folksy values that Broadway musicals have used to such great effect in their pursuit of separating those fools from their money—including, of course, that most American of values: greed is good.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. Through Sept. 10. $22-$72.

 
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