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DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS
By Jeffrey Lane
Music & lyrics by David Yazbek
Playhouse Theatre Company
Vancouver Playhouse
Nov. 21-Dec. 27
$35-$69
604-873-3311 or www.vancouverplayhouse.com

Under Artistic Director Max Reimer, the Playhouse seems to have developed a strategy of producing non-Christmas-themed musicals in December to counter the Arts Club’s double-barreled Christmas offerings. The Reimer-directed and co-choreographed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is no match for The Drowsy Chaperone, last December’s exceptional show. But it offers a slick, attractive and entertaining version of Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek’s witty if overwritten script without any of the seasonal sentimentality to be found at the Arts Club.

Based on the 1988 movie with Steve Martin and Michael Caine, Scoundrels follows a trio of con artists operating on the French Riviera. Posing as an aristocrat, English gigolo Lawrence (Andrew Wheeler), with his French assistant Andre (David Marr), specializes in ripping off rich American women.  When low-end American con man Freddy (Josh Epstein) shows up, he and Lawrence inevitably end up competing to see who can successfully fleece pretty young Christine (Elena Juatco).  Meanwhile, Andre hooks up with one of Lawrence’s marks, Muriel (Gabrielle Jones).  There are plenty of twists and turns and (maybe not such) surprise endings along the way.

The principals are uniformly excellent. Maurice Chevalier-like, Wheeler has mastered a smooth, debonair delivery and body language that makes him eminently watchable and balances out the limitations of his singing. Epstein once again proves himself a first-rate musical comedian.  His loose-limbed physicality, quickness and excellent voice are especially evident in his introductory number, “Great Big Stuff,” in his playing the very funny role of Lawrence’s brother from hell, and in his wheelchair-ridden, paralyzed from the waist down pretences for Christine’s sake.  (I warned you it wasn’t sentimental.)

Marr, having perfected the role of the lovable second-banana, is utterly charming.  He has one of the show’s wittiest numbers, trashing Freddy in “Great Big Chimp” with rhymes like “Buy him a castle, He’ll still be an asshole.”  It’s not his fault, or Jones’, that Andre and Muriel’s second-act romance seems redundant.

Juatco is the revelation here.  As Christine, her energetic naïvety is delightful. She has a lovely singing voice and absolutely lights up the stage.  In fact the entire female chorus is great to look at, though talented singer-dancers like Debbie Timuss, Katie Murphy and Kazumi Evans are given relatively little to do, and the small male chorus even less.

The serviceable music is delivered with panache by Steve Thomas’ tight seven-piece band.  Curiously, no one seems to be credited for the colorful set and costumes.

If you’re looking for an upbeat holiday musical experience, and you don’t want seasonal sentimentality (White Christmas) or happily-ever-after romance (Thoroughly Modern Millie), these scoundrels are the boys and girls for you.

Jerry Wasserman