Kansas City-based Theater League presents in just seven U.S. cities, so it's always felt kind of like Phoenix's own little Shubert Organization. Although TL does produce shows itself, its Passport to Broadway series snags national road companies of hot musicals from the tour producers (for example, the sparkling Mamma Mia! that played a record 2,200 performances on the Vegas Strip) and brings them to us.
Right now we're in the middle of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a relatively new musical based on the spittingly funny 1988 film. Because I dislike musicals so, I'd never even heard of this thing, which played a year and a half on Broadway; turns out it's actually pretty sweet.
Theater League's achieved a lucky marketing coup by scheduling a show about good old-fashioned con artists in this season of fallout from Bernie Madoff and his shady ilk. Scoundrels takes place in the present, so the lyrics are full of sharp and updatable references to current celebrities and events. The songs are zippy, too, with complex rhymes and, in a Urinetown or South Park-ish way, occasional parodic nods to well-known tunes from other extravaganzas. And production numbers big and small occur at points in the story where they seem to fit. Hooray.
I pause here to voice a complaint I often have about actor diction and sound mixing in contemporary musicals. It's bad enough in general, but in this show, between the cleverness of the lyrics, the purposely (as well as unintentionally) bad fake accents of some of the characters, and the fucking loudness of the orchestra and chorus channels, there were several songs, especially the very up-tempo ones and those with female soloists, that were impossible to follow. In some scenes, even dialogue was incomprehensible. Most musical theater songwriters really do intend for us to understand what they wrote, and a lot of your patrons are hearing-impaired, so please get a clue, dudes.
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But this production is not the worst of such offenders, and the gist is easy to get. I especially love the performances of Stephen Patterson and Heather McGuigan as Freddy Benson and Christina Colgate, the younger pair of strangely motivated lovers. Patterson is an unabashedly physical actor who gives Freddy an endearing goofy sleaziness, and he shines even brighter when he's opposite McGuigan's enormous smile and warm, comforting voice. She keeps a straight, ingenuous face through some big-time plot high jinks, which just makes everything funnier.
While we're on McGuigan, someone has put the poor lady in a horrible, straw-like straight blond wig (I hope it's a wig, for her sake -- if not, somebody get her one!), and since the chorus and supporting players look so sharp through all their changes, I'm baffled why this is so, but not surprised. I understand that the style per se is probably an intentional choice for the character, but how about something with some shine and bounce that doesn't look like a vintage Barbie the puppy got hold of?
David Rockwell's scenic design and Gregg Barnes' costumes are colorful, harmonious, and alternately simple and extravagant when they need to be. The set, in particular, has a wonderful sparkly, lacquered, Riviera-meets-its-own-façade look that reinforces Scoundrels' theme, as articulated by Homer Simpson: "It takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen."
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs through Sunday, May 10, at the Orpheum Theatre, 200 West Washington Street (but it's really on Adams). The tour continues at Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, on May 12 and 13 . Tickets are $25 to $57.50; order here or call 602-262-7272 for the Orpheum box office, 480-644-6500 for Mesa.