Civic Theatre’s "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" plays the con game for laughs
After directing seven serious dramas in a row, including Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of hell, No Exit, Glenn Bugala was ready for some laughs.
Bugala is directing the musical comedy version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. Bugala, who has a Master of Fine Arts in acting from Purdue University, has performed and directed numerous productions at Civic since he became involved with the theater in 1997. His credits include directing Rent, Chess, Tommy, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, and Front Page.
Scoundrels, with book by Jeffrey Lane and music by David Yazbek, is based on the 1988 movie starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine as an odd couple of conmen engaged in fleecing rich women on the French Riviera. Caine played a smooth-talking gentleman who cons wealthy women to Martin’s rowdy, lowbrow who is happy snagging $20 from anyone he can.
“I think these days, with the news cycle, we could all use a comedy,” Bugala said. “I’ve known the movie since it came out, and I’ve kept a VHS tape of it since then.”
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels plays on the contrast between the sophisticated, debonair Lawrence Jameson and rough and tumble Freddy Benson. Lawrence takes Freddy under his wing and introduces him to his highlife style. After a while, Lawrence grows tired of Freddy’s antics and proposes a wager to decide who will stay and who will go. They bet on who will be the first to swindle $50,000 from a rich American heiress. Lawrence is also on the lookout for another con artist called The Jackal, who might just move in on his territory.
Bugala said it was the show’s choreographer, Rachel Francisco, who introduced him to the musical version.
“I was skeptical, but the music is just delightful,” Bugala said. “David Yazbek, who won the Tony this summer for The Band’s Visit, composed it, so what else would you expect. It all has a sweet French jazz sound, except for a few comic exceptions. Watch for Freddy’s pimped out hip-hop song in Lawrence’s villa, and when we say ‘Oklahoma Ballet’, we don’t mean you grandfather’s Oklahoma!. The choreography in the show is energetic, and Rachel showed a great range of style. Watch for a Motown homage in Act II.”
Joseph Daniel is the music director.
“He brings a high level of skill to this show," Bugala said. "He’ll be leading a small jazz combo in the orchestra pit of potted palms.”
Timothy Ziegler plays the sophisticated Lawrence. A lead pastor at West Side United Methodist Church, Ziegler had his first lead role playing Jonah in a church play when he was in elementary school. He has since performed in numerous plays and musicals at Civic and other area theaters.
“Lawrence is an exceptionally confident con-artist whose talent has never let him down ... at least not yet!" said Ziegler. “He is a skilled mimic and possesses a Steve Jobs-ian preternatural ability to provide others what they want even before they know themselves. The difficulty in playing someone like Lawrence lies in understanding one of his true desires in life, which, for all of us I suppose, is to be known as himself. But he has built up a fortune being other people and I’m not sure he has a firm grip on his central identity.”
In contrast is Freddy Benson, played by Dominic Seipenko, a sales manager at DocNework, which provides electronic health record systems.
“In a nutshell, Freddy’s the firecracker and loose cannon of the show; the embodiment of everything that Lawrence loathes,” Seipenko said. “He’s a small-time American con artist who’s hungry to enter the big leagues, and he’ll stop at nothing in order to make his dreams a reality.”
Ziegler said the mentoring of Freddy by Lawrence is central to understanding their relationship.
“Working with someone as delightfully talented at Dominic allows this relationship to really jump off the stage,” Ziegler said. “Freddy begins as a third-rate conman. He is uneducated and does not possess much class. But Lawrence sees in him the opportunity to pass along what he knows so that that the game might continue even after Lawrence moves on to whatever’s next. In turn, Freddy reminds Lawrence what it means to be young and, mostly, stupid while carrying enormous potential for love, heartbreak, camaraderie and eventual success with the proper tutelage.”
Seipenko, who graduated from the University of Michigan last spring, has had roles at Civic in Bonnie and Clyde and Rent but says Freddy has been a challenge.
“The role itself is unlike anything I’ve ever done in the fact that the character is so unapologetically bold and bombastic,” he said. “It’s a constant challenge harnessing the energy and audacity the character demands, plus David Yazbek’s score utilizes almost the entirety of my vocal range. With that said, I live for a good challenge, especially vocal and love the role because of it.”
Bugala said that Ziegler and Seipenko have “become good pals on the set.”
“The two guys are almost always trying to one-up each other, so the actors are working on who has the power and who is losing,” Bugala said. “Also, in this kind of comedy, it’s important to lose with panache. Some actors can pursue their objectives so aggressively that they forget to let the audience see them lose. There are laughs in those reactions, too.”
The rich American mark, Christine, is played by Hannah Sparrow, who ran a good con when she was in first grade and trying out for a role in The Wizard of Oz. The teacher said the students could play any role they wanted.
“So we had seven Dorothys that would rotate out during the show and when it came to my turn to choose a character I wanted to be, I chose the Wicked Witch, knowing that I would have the most stage time since no girl wanted to play the villain,” Sparrow said.
This is Sparrow’s first show with Civic, but she has performed at the Croswell Opera House in Adrian, where she played Maria in West Side Story in May. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in music education.
Sparrow calls Christine “a pure spirit.”
“She’s full of life and excitement, essentially the eternal optimist,” Sparrow said. “She is genuine to Freddy and Lawrence, but in the back of her mind knows that playing to both of their weaknesses is part of the challenge of winning them over. The best part of playing Christine is that I have a big secret during the show that in only revealed at the end, so the audience is left wondering after the big reveal, ‘was that all a lie from her, or was it the real Christine?’ It causes the audience to go back and think about the interactions that she has had with the men throughout the show and to figure out who was genuine or not.”
The lead performers each have their favorite songs.
“My big showstopper, 'Here I Am,' happens right when I enter and it’s a blast to sing,” Sparrow said. “I sing a couple of duets with Dominic and some group things with all three of us. This music is challenging for me personally because I’m not used to singing in the style of the show. Because the show is more modern musical theater, it calls for more of a belting tone rather than what I’m used to, so it’s a challenge to adapt to that tone.”
Seipenko’s big number is “Great Big Stuff” but his favorite is “Love Is My Legs.”
“It’s a hilarious, belty number that’s sure to leave the audience in stitches,” he said.
Ziegler performs several numbers in the play, beginning with the rousing opening song, “What They Want.” But Seipenko and Sparrow sing his most beloved tune.
“My favorite song in the show is hearing Dominic and Hannah sing ‘Nothing Is Too Wonderful.' The power of their voices and the ways in which they blend is both winsome and magnetic.”
Bugala said that after directing “meaningful dramas” for seven years it was time to do a “straight-up comedy.”
“There’s no real moralizing going on in this show, but hidden in the background may be the promise that flimflam men and liars ultimately get found out,” Bugala said. “And, interestingly, we’ve discovered that although these men think they're pulling the wool over women’s eyes, it’s actually the women who are in control and get the last laugh.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" is at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Sept. 6, at 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 7-8, and at 2 pm on Sunday, Sept. 9, at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University, on the Central Campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets and information, visit a2ct.org or call 734-971-2228. A limited number of tickets are available at the door for each performance.