There are surprises aplenty in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the irreverent buddy musical on view at the Fox. But one of the biggest surprises is how much time passes before the show takes charge. For the first several scenes, Scoundrels teases the audience, promising more than it delivers as it constructs what appears to be a simple premise.
Set on the French Riviera, the breezy plot concerns two nefarious flim-flam men. First we meet Lawrence, a debonair rascal who has grown accustomed to, yet is bored by, all his accrued elegance. Next the script introduces brash interloper Freddy, a vulgarian eager to wallow in the many perks that a life of crime offers. Then we travel down a long, unrewarding cul-de-sac as Lawrence sets about to swindle an Oklahoma oil heiress.
Finally, six songs into Act One, a hilariously crass and eminently hummable ditty called "All About Ruprecht" ignites the evening. This litany of eccentricities enjoyed by Lawrence's fictional brother, whose gene-deprived depravity is enough to scare off any heiress, reaffirms the impudent talent that composer David Yazbek first displayed in The Full Monty. Yazbek can write a tune as sweet as something by Frank Loesser or Harold Arlen, then spice it up with saucy lyrics straight from Shel Silverstein or Tom Lehrer. ("The Bushes of Tex/Were nervous wrecks/Because their son was dim/But look what happened to him.") Thanks to Yazbek and Ruprecht, Scoundrels hits its stride; then in the next scene it finds its reason for being. With the arrival of the insouciant American soap queen Christine Colgate, an obvious and easy target if ever there was one, Lawrence and Freddy compete to see which con artist will dupe her first. Finally we're off and running.
Director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell are highly adept at staging crowd-pleasing Broadway fare like The Full Monty and Hairspray. But there's a sense here that after they helplessly stood by as their terrific ensemble piece The Full Monty got eclipsed by the giant shadow of Mel Brooks' personality-driven The Producers in 2001 for this venture O'Brien and Mitchell are emulating the Producers formula. This too is a star vehicle about unlikely comrades who set out to fleece wealthy women. On Broadway the scoundrels were played by John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz. In this road company, the absence of star presence is sorely felt. Somewhere in Act Two Tom Hewitt begins to exude stylish fun as the urbane Lawrence, but D.B. Bonds never does bring much to Freddy. He's unable, for instance, to take control of a sloppy ice-cream sundae of a showstopper called "Great Big Stuff."
It's left to Laura Marie Duncan as the innocent Christine to neatly slip the show into her décolletage and steal the evening. Duncan is a charmer. No matter how outrageous things get onstage and they do get outrageous her breathless ingenuousness helps to persuade us that Christine is the ultimate victim. There's also a savvy performance from Hollis Resnik as one of Lawrence's well-heeled targets. This is a character who should vanish from the plot early on but never does. The ever-delightful Resnik seems to have a clear understanding of her function in the show even if the rest of us don't.
By evening's end the show makes up for its slow start. There are lots of laughs (especially for those easily amused by theater of cruelty), still more outlandish songs, and a good time is had by all. Yet we're left with the nagging sense that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels could have delivered an even better time had it kicked in earlier, ended sooner and offered a little more glow in the title roles.