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IF YOU GO
What: Musical about con artists working the French Riviera
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through April 2; first three weeks sold out, tickets available for week of March 29-April 2
Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples
Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.com
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
NAPLES — Dastardly thieves and diamond-clad dames prowled the French Riviera as the Naples Players opened their production of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" Wednesday. Audiences will adore the bright costumes, energetic choreography, fabulous score and spirited hijinks, but curious design choices keep the show from reaching its full potential.
"Scoundrels" is based on the 1988 Michael Caine and Steve Martin film of the same name, which was itself an uncredited remake of 1964's "Bedtime Story." A 2005 Broadway version ran for 626 performances and earned 11 Tony Award nominations. Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers served up a production in October 2009.
The show follows two men who make their living running cons on the wealthy, bored and lonely women in Beaumont-sur-Mer, in the French Riviera. Experienced grifter Lawrence Jameson (James Little) takes newcomer Freddy Benson (Michael Freshko) under his wing while the two try to swindle "American Soap Queen" Christine Colgate (Laura Needle). But who's conning who?
The big scenes in "Scoundrels" work - beautifully so; dance numbers and most of the songs leap off the stage. Everything else feels a half-step slow - a misfire for a spirited piece of featherweight fluff that should zip across the stage. Design and lighting choices also seem muted instead of joyful and happy; other than four enormous palm trees and some paintings, there's almost nothing that gives a feeling of the sand, sun and surf of the French Riviera on the set.
A vibrant Needle owns the stage once she shows up near the end of the first act. Whether spinning through a hotel lobby in a chiffon gown surrounded by porters and chambermaids or twirling through a garish hotel bedroom in a sheer lounging robe, she radiates confidence. Wait for her "Here I Am" number.
Little and Freshko prove an amiable pair of grifting gents - although they don't appear to have much chemistry and are constantly upstaged by one or the other of a bevy of supporting actresses. A suave Little (in the Michael Caine role) does best when he throws himself into the art of the con; the "Riffhousin' Mit Shiffhausen" might be his best number. Freshko sells the silly "Great Big Stuff" number. The pair gets a solid round of applause for the penultimate "Dirty Rotten Number."
Enough sprawling side plots to fill a hotel run through the show. Ever-reliable Mary Anne McAvoy McKerrow, playing oil heiress Jolene Oakes (she gets conned), enters in boots, a fantastic cow-hide dress and fires a few shots from her pistol. She waltzes right off with the crowd-pleasing "Oklahoma" number, although the ensemble (in matching costumes no less) seems wasted just peeking in from the edges of the stage in this number.
Former professional actress Debi Guthery (Muriel Eubanks, she gets conned) lifts even the worst of the throwaway jokes she's asked to deliver. Lament "What Was a Woman To Do?" - sung from a balcony - becomes a signature torch song. She and Randy Jones (Andre), her partner in crime from last summer's "Annie," bring brilliant chemistry to one of the more ridiculous sub-plots. And watch for their funny, silly, lovely "Like Zis, Like Zat" pitter-patter duet.
While the acting, singing, dancing, choreography and music all deliver, the misfires come in the design and staging, proving yet again how important those elements can be to a show. Matt Flynn's towering sets have to be flexible enough to convey the feeling of the French Riviera while doubling as a mansion, hotel room, hotel lobby, casino, train station and more. They do all that, but the demands of functionality completely overwhelm any sense of style.
Creatively, the show seems unable to fully take advantage of the seaside setting. The dazzling Crayola-box costumes just can't go far enough to give the show's palette a light, bright and sunshiny day feeling of the French Riviera. Many - too many - scenes play out in front of neutral backdrops that leave an unremitting impression of boring and bland. Towering balconies on either side of the stage offer wonderful platforms for performances, but leave the acors looking small by comparison.
Inexplicable lighting choices also leave many of the superb dance sequences - the highlight of the show - playing out in semi-darkness. While the show does have romantic, even night-time moments, I've never seen a seaside so gloomy or dimly lit.
Dawn Lebrecht Fornara's bouncy choreography proves the night's biggest success. Each dance number splashes onto the senses like a jolt of caffeine. The sizzling "Overture," "Great Big Stuff," and "Here I Am" all liven up the first half, while "The More We Dance" highlights the second.
Dot Auchmoody turns out a rainbow of sherbet-colored frocks to decorate ladies during the overture, while hotel chambermaids get a purple, green and blue striped confection. Guthery also gets a series of sparkling outfits - including one incredible homage to Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" painting.
Charles Fornara's 14-member orchestra pumps out the toe-tapping tunes with plenty of panache. Audience members around me complained (at length) about the volume; I didn't think it was overly loud - and the zippy music helps keep the sometimes flagging show afloat. From overture to curtain, Fornara's team turns an overlooked score into one of the night's best elements - if you're not moving your feet to "The More We Dance," check your pacemaker.
"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" bounces along on a tide of pretty tunes, pretty girls, pretty dresses and bad, bad boys. Costumes delight, dancers dazzle and Debi Guthery sings for all she's worth. It's a fun, frilly evening - just check your pockets after the show!
I need a weekend in the south of France. E-mail me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.