‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ at Zemfira Stage by Emily Cao

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FOUR STARS
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is – comparatively – a little-known comedic musical. Based on a funny 1988 film of the same name starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, the musical, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Jeffrey Lane, debuted on Broadway in 2005 and played for 18 months before being taken on multiple US and world tours.

Jim Mitchell (Lawrence Jamison) and Brian David Clarke (Freddy Benson). Photo by Zina Beck.
Jim Mitchell (Lawrence Jamison) and Brian David Clarke (Freddy Benson). Photo by Zina Beck.

The story is set in the French Riviera in summertime, where cultivated and suave British con artist Lawrence Jamison (Jim Mitchell) seduces and swindles wealthy, susceptible women with the help of corrupt French police official named Andre (Mike King). He meets small-time American hustler Freddy Benson (Brian David Clarke) and – upon a bet – decides to try to elevate the vulgar and boorish Freddy to high culture and bigger con ploys, all the while worrying about a new infamous con character in the area named The Jackal, who he is afraid will drive him out of business in the Riviera.

The show is part Catch Me If You Can – with a fast-talking and sophisticated Jamison pretending to be anything from a tragic royal European prince to a renowned Austrian clinical psychologist in order to seduce his questionably-intelligent female marks – and part My Fair Lady in Jamieson’s condescending mentoring of Freddy, who is “so deliciously low, so horribly dirty – what a challenge!”

I appreciated the ingenuity and enthusiasm of Zemfira Stage’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.The singing level and orchestral accompaniment, lead by Orchestra Director Annette Fakoury were impressive Zina Bleck and Stacy King’s effective set included a few furniture pieces and a simple screen background, and but clever lighting cue interactions with the actors by Stacy King elevated both production and added comedic value. The costumes by Zina Bleck and the cast were eyebrow-raising gorgeous. Taking in the beat of the vacationing filthy rich, the ensemble came out in rotations of breathtaking gowns during songs “Give Them What They Want” and “What Was a Woman To Do?”

The performance also showcased some great local talent. Jim Mitchell played the stately Lawrence Jamison with elitist snobbery and an entirely believable British accent. Brian David Clarke’s Freddy Benson was everything that the character was written to be – crudely sly, gleefully unscrupulous and uproariously hilarious, especially in “Great Big Stuff.” Stacy Crickmer was Christine Colgate, the naïve and warm-hearted target of a bet by Jamison and Freddy, who turns out to be the cleverest of them all in a surprisingly unexpected plot twist. Her rendition of ‘Here I Am.”

My personal favorite performance of the night was Katie Culligan as Jolene Oakes, an Oklahoma oil heiress cowgirl whom Jamison attempts to seduce but quickly backtracks as Jolene mistakenly thinks they are engaged and plans their (very redneck) wedding. Culligan has altogether amazing voice-acting skills in her big number “Oklahoma!” and fantastic stage presence, with girlish energy and brash enthusiasm, and plays Jamison like a finely tuned fiddle to the point where his look of miserable imprisonment looks entirely sympathetic to the audience.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has a bit of the best of what makes comedy successful. From slapstick humor by Jamison and Freddy in the second act, to breaking the fourth wall occasionally for punch-line jokes with the audience, to the hilariously impassioned (and highly inappropriate) whirlwind romance between the French Andre and one of Jamison’s previous heiress jilts Muriel Eubanks, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is great comedy and Zemfira Stage delivers on the musical’s potential.

Zemfira Stage is a volunteer-based theater group founded in 1998 by Producer/Direction Zina Bleck. As an audience member with no ties to the organization nor any cast/crew members, it was visible to me the level of enthusiasm and love of the stage that the singers, actors, musicians, and even the tech crew running the giant spotlight – possessed. In the words of a fellow audience member with whom I spoke to briefly, the show allows people to “take time to come together and see one another outside of their busy lives while doing something they love.”

The cast of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.' Photo by Zina Bleck.
The cast of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.’ Photo by Zina Bleck.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is an enjoyable high-quality production with great direction, a fine score, and a wonderful cast. It’s highly rewarding and the enthusiasm of the cast and crew is undeniably infectious. You’ll have a great time!

Running time: Approximately two hours and forty-five minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels played its final performance on September 6, 2013 at Zemfira Stage performing at the James Lee Community Center – in Falls Church, VA. For tickets to future productions, call (703) 615-6626, or email zemfirastage@gmail.com.