Grease, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Grease, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, October 23 (matinee)

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Theatre Royal, Sydney, October 23

THE simultaneous arrival in Sydney of Grease and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels isn’t the greatest news. The Sydney appetite for musicals doesn’t appear to be particularly buoyant at this moment so it’s rather bad luck to have both shows in town at the same time. We’re a long way from Broadway, baby. How tragic is this – that two musicals in a city as big as Sydney could be considered one too many for the market? I hope I’m wrong, even though I’d be lying to say both are must-sees. One is absolutely delightful; the other is a joyless stitching together of names presumably thought to appeal to different demographics.

So. Second things first. Grease really makes one’s heart sink. What started in 1971 as a scrappy, raunchy snapshot of 1950s American teenagers has turned into luridly coloured bubblegum. It’s sticky, but completely disposable. The reason it’s still done is because the songs – which now include ones written for the 1978 film – are so popular. Oddly, Grease has kind of metamorphosed into a jukebox musical.

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo with the cast of Grease, Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo with the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

The current production derives from the most recent UK one. For some reason it starts with an attempt at an audience sing- and clap-along as if it were a variety show at a club or pub. This is not promising and little happens thereafter to lift the spirits. The biggest stumbling block is the poor onstage chemistry: there is no sense that those in the cast naturally go together, no matter what the song says. Veteran Bert Newton as rockin’ DJ Vince Fontaine is a case in point. He is, ahem, of rather too mature vintage for this part (I speak as one who, as a child, was knocked out by his double act with Graeme Kennedy on In Melbourne Tonight, starting more than 50 years ago) and, alas, Newton peppers his lines with fragments of a locution only vaguely recognisable as American. On the subject of accents, Gretel Scarlett plays our heroine Sandy as an Australian, in homage to the luminous Olivia Newton-John in the film version. Her songs, of course, are delivered with an American accent.

I don’t blame Newton or Scarlett, or indeed anyone else on stage. These are matters of casting and direction. In amongst the noisy, superficial action Lucy Maunder stands out for bringing some nuance to tough-girl Rizzo and Todd McKenney’s Teen Angel is an enjoyable amalgam of Liberace and beloved cult comic figure Bob Downe. As a whole – well, there is no whole.

DEVOTEES of the con-man comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – and I count myself among them – know how it turns out, a circumstance that matters not one jot when it comes to the musical faithfully and ebulliently based on the 1988 movie.

The fun is getting there, although if you are no fan of self-referential theatre you may find Jeffrey Lane’s book for the show, written in 2005, just a tad self-indulgent as it nods and winks to the house. I couldn’t enjoy that sort of thing more when it’s delivered with the radiant command of leading men Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington.

Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Scoundrels is set in the south of France where the smooth stylings of Lawrence Jameson (Sheldon) have long made him a man of dubiously acquired substance. Enter wannabe Freddy Benson (Hetherington), pretender to the Jameson throne despite lacking the necessary polish. The Odd Couple lives again in primary colours and the broadest of strokes, aided and abetted by a feisty dame (Amy Lehpamer’s Christine Colgate), a tuneful score and exquisitely silly lyrics by The Full Monty composer and lyricist David Yazbeck, and sumptuous servings of ham.

There could so easily be a sour taste to the show’s exaltation of acquisitiveness, which this production of Scoundrels avoids by the simple wheeze of getting its casting absolutely spot-on. I saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway with David Carradine as Lawrence and he lacked the requisite lightness of spirit; again, as with my strictures regarding Grease, this doesn’t mean Carradine is not a fine actor. He was simply not quite right for Lawrence, a man Somerset Maugham would have recognised as one of his shady people in sunny places. Sheldon oozes the kind of dash and style that only money can buy, and who cares where the money comes from.

Making a welcome return from the US where he has been ensconced since his big success on Broadway in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Sheldon is in a class of his own for suavity and twinkly, knowing intelligence. Hetherington is the dishevelled, cocky goofball whose charms would be extremely dubious indeed if not tempered with sweetness and boyish buoyancy. Let’s put it this way. He manages to sell a scene in which Freddy pretends to be Lawrence’s chromosomally challenged brother, a scene replete not just with sexual innuendo but graphic sexual horseplay.

As I say, sweet.

Everything else swirls happily around these two. Given that Lawrence and Freddy essentially constitute the lead romantic couple, conventional musical theatre dictates there should be a secondary couple, here the local compliant chief of police (John Wood) and one of Lawrence’s marks (Anne Wood). The parts aren’t up to much really but are nicely played.

It’s a great pity there’s no room in the second half for Katrina Retallick’s rip-snorting Jolene Oakes, an Oklahoma gal intent on marrying up but still wedded to her cowgirl life. But Scoundrels needs to move on to Christine, which it does with double entendre-laden speed, and fortunately Lehpamer is adorable in this pivotal role. All hail to director Roger Hodgman for astutely managing the balance between laugh-out-loud impact and likeability, not just with Lehpamer but with everyone on stage.

The neat ensemble has attractive dance from Dana Jolly, pretty dresses by Teresa Negroponte and Guy Simpson conducts a terrific band notable for its generous size. Loads of undemanding fun.

The Sydney season of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has been extended to December 8

Grease, Melbourne from January 2

A version of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels review appeared in The Australian on October 25.

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