PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Teamwork and Schemework

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Teamwork and Schemework
You know the con is on when you pick up your Playbill at the Imperial and find on the title page in teeny tiny type 29 dirty rotten producers. Thoroughly legitimate legit types like Marty Bell, David Brown, Chase Mishken, Jay Harris, Dede Harris, Roy Furman and Harvey Weinstein are punctuated by improbables like Florenz Ziegfeld, David Belasco and The Entire Prussian Army—a merry bunch of moneybags, these.

John Lithgow & Norbert Leo Butz; Sherie Rene Scott; Joanna Gleason; Gregory Jbara; Jack O'Brien, David Rockwell & Jerry Mitchell; David Yazbeck; Jeffrey Lane; Joan Collins; Joan Rivers; Edie Falco; Rocco Di Spirito; March Shaiman & Scott Whitman; Joyce De
John Lithgow & Norbert Leo Butz; Sherie Rene Scott; Joanna Gleason; Gregory Jbara; Jack O'Brien, David Rockwell & Jerry Mitchell; David Yazbeck; Jeffrey Lane; Joan Collins; Joan Rivers; Edie Falco; Rocco Di Spirito; March Shaiman & Scott Whitman; Joyce De Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Then, the curtain rises on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels—a light fingered foray into musical comedy—and John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz take it from there, a couple of con artists playing one-upsmanship on the Riviera where they relieve love-hungry heiresses of their baubles and loot. Sherie Rene Scott is the damsel over whom they square off.

These three kept the triangle twirling dizzily March 3 when the show officially opened for business, and the spin continued into the early ayem at the Copacabana after-party.

Having given their all at the office, the cast was then put through a gauntlet of flashbulbs, tape recorders and TV cameras before they could the main dining area. Not that this was a particular safe haven, either. The elephant in the room was the insistent live "entertainment," which had been pumped up to supersonic volume, thereby reducing all conversations to shouting matches or mouth-moving pantomime. It was, grimly, a blast.

Butz, who had turned in an outlandishly hilarious performance two hours earlier, was first to fade, not unlike the witch in his previous Broadway outing, Wicked. He evaporated right in the middle of a reporter's question about the transforming and transfixing performance his stomach gives in the show (you have to see it). "I'm losing my energy, I'm sorry," he said, waving away the press and weaving toward the Wall of Sound inside.

Joanna Gleason, the lead love-hungry lady, arrived live, but the band played on. "It's too loud for me to talk, sweetie," she said. Obligingly, she moved to the entranceway, then down some steps to the hall and finally to a sound-safe alcove. Gracious as ever, she is still the class act she was as Nora Charles in her last Broadway assignment 14 years ago. Nick and Nora ran nine performances (after 71 turbulent previews), but it gave her a long-running marriage (to co-star Chris Sarandon) and a child whom she has enjoyed raising on the West Coast. "We just moved here so, hopefully, we'll be here for a while," she said. "I'm having the time of my life with this play and this cast. They're heavenly to work with." Another returnee from LaLa Land is Gregory Jbara (Damn Yankees, Victor/Victoria). He eases some of Gleason's hunger during the course of the comedy and affects a strange French accent. (All those years at the Soubonne were not wasted!). "Actually, I think it came from my French classes in junior high in suburban Detroit. It's Michigan French."

The blonde and beautiful Scott is also caught up in the moving spirit. She and her husband, Sh-K-Boom Records chief Kurt Deutsch, are now in the process of switching from a studio apartment in the city to a country home in upstate New York; the latter was previously owned by Ed Sherin and Jane Alexander. "We are definitely keeping the theatre tradition alive in the house," she promised. "It's our first house. We housesat there three years so we know what we're getting into. I have no idea how we're going to do it."

Lithgow, always the pillar of patience at these events, actually returned to the press pit in order to pose for photographs with his two lead co-stars. The chemistry among the three, he insisted, was bubbling and authentic. "You can't fake that kind of fun. Norbert is glorious to work with. I feel like we're Abbott & Costello, that we've been at this for years."

The good vibes extended beyond the cast to the creatives in command—director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who are about to start the film version of their Hairspray, and songwriter David Yazbek, with whom they did The Full Monty.

"Writing the book for a musical is something I always wanted to do, and, to do it with Jack and Jerry and David, is a real trip," admitted the debuting book writer, Jeffrey Lane, a five-time Emmy winner recruited from television ("Mad About You," "Ryan's Hope," "Lou Grant"). He and Yazbek were in sych even before they started collaborating, he said. "MGM had a list of properties they were looking to license, and, for some reason, this hit me. When I first met with them, they said, `Who would you like to do the music and lyrics?' And I said, `Well, the one person that seems right in my gut is David Yazbek.' Turns out, David had called them about six months before asking about the same title. So we met and, right away, we realized that we want to write the same show."

Yazbek's lyric-driven songs are shows in themselves, but, when he's told that Sondheim started that way, he can't quite get his head around that. "Mention me and Sondheim in the same sentence is not something that I would agree with. He's just so far above everybody else. Frank Loesser, in terms of musical theatre, was my biggest inspiration."

Mitchell, who is turning into a hyphenate (director-choreographer) for Legally Blonde, seems to be spending the whole 2004-2005 theatre season on the French Riviera—first with La Cage aux Folles and now with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. "I thought this is really such a wonderful opportunity for contrast. One's wild and crazy. One's about elegance."

The opening-night audience gave off an inordinate amount of glitter: Dina Merrill, Tina Louise, Joan Collins, Joan Rivers, Noah Racey, Noah Emmerich, Edie Falco, John Selya, Jeff Goldblum, Rocco Di Spirito, Phoebe Snow, Ron Lee Savin, Judith Ivey, Adriane Lenox, Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman, Rob Fisher, Adam Pascal, Joyce De Witt, Terrence McNally, David Henry Hwang, Frank Wildhorn, Karen Ziemba, Charles Busch, Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, Tovah Feldshuh, Kathleen Marshall, Ann Richards, Audra McDonald, Helen Gurley Brown.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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