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Josh Epstein and Andrew Wheeler are duelling scam artists in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

3 out of 4 stars

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

  • Book by Jeffrey Lane
  • Music and lyrics by David Yazbek
  • Directed by Max Reimer
  • Starring Elena Juatco, Andrew Wheeler, Josh Epstein
  • At the Vancouver Playhouse

Theatre can be moving, it can be life-changing, it can be an important voice in difficult times. The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company's production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is none of the above. But it is a lot of fun.

In the story, two con artists ply their trade on the French Riviera, taking advantage of the wealthy, desperate women who vacation there. Lawrence Jameson (Andrew Wheeler) is the suave, experienced elder statesman of the con and Freddy Benson (Josh Epstein) is the new guy in town, young and eager to learn.

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The action really gets going when the lovely but naive Christine Colgate (Elena Juatco) checks into the luxury hotel where Lawrence stakes out many of his conquests - often while posing as a member of a deposed French royal family, fighting for reinstatement. Christine becomes a target as Lawrence and Freddy ruthlessly compete for con-artist superiority.

Based on the 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, the musical stage adaptation premiered in September, 2004, in California and moved to Broadway the following year. This is the Playhouse's first go at it, directed and co-choreographed by artistic managing director Max Reimer. It is his second directorial effort since joining the company (his first was last season's well-reviewed production of The Drowsy Chaperone ).

Reimer again has done an excellent job, creating a dynamic production that lives up to the funny book and musical numbers. (Consider lyrics such as: "A house in the Bahamas / Paisley silk pyjamas / Poker with Al Roker / And our friend Lorenzo Lamas" from the number Great Big Stuff .)

But above all it is the cast that makes this production a stand-out. Epstein in particular nails it: He is very funny; an excellent physical comedian who makes it look easy - even when he's sliding down a banister or dragging himself up and into a wheelchair. He is never over the top - despite the temptations this material must provide. He is a thoughtful, likeable Freddy. And he can sing.

Juatco shines as Christine - perfectly lanky and awkward as befits the role, but graceful, lovely and funny. She proves her comedic worth and versatility late in the play, in particular with a scene that may raise a few eyebrows (let's just say it's not exactly politically correct; some will find it offensive). But her great strength is her voice (not a surprise; she was a Canadian Idol finalist). In particular, she and Epstein do a fabulous job with the ballad spoof Love Is My Legs .

Wheeler is wonderful, moving back and forth from French to Austrian to vaguely British accents with ease. And Gabrielle Jones - despite portraying a character that is little more than a caricature - is excellent as Muriel, the rich American who falls first for Lawrence (as the deposed prince), and later for his French co-conspirator, André (David Marr).

The casting becomes problematic in the romantic scenes between Christine and Lawrence; the age gap between the young Juatco and the much older Wheeler made for some creepy moments, and we could have done without Lawrence's hand on Christine's behind so very often.

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One could also take issue with some of the groaners in the script. The intentional cornball jokes are great. But the humour, at times, is pretty juvenile: Lawrence as Dr. Shuffhausen sniffing Freddy's sock; the phrase "like a lynching" prompting the comment "I love Chinese food." Groan (and not in a good way).

Still, the play is funny. It's a fluffy, light romp. It's completely escapist, skin-deep entertainment. If that's what you're looking for from your night at the theatre, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels will not disappoint.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs until Dec. 27 at the Vancouver Playhouse (vancouverplayhouse.com).

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