Norbert Leo Butz (with Tom Hewitt) gives a must-see performance.
Norbert Leo Butz (with Tom Hewitt) gives a must-see performance.
Chris Bennion

Low-Rent Scoundrels

The award-winning Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the Bart Simpson of Broadway musicals -- tasteless yet entertaining. This could also describe the extraordinary star turn by Norbert Leo Butz, but more of him later.

Jeffrey Lane, who's won countless Emmy awards for a TV sitcom career that includes Mad About You, Lou Grant and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, wrote the show's book, while David Yazbek, whose first Broadway show was the successful, gentler The Full Monty, penned the toe-tapping music and jazzed lyrics. They adapted the show from the forgettable Steve Martin/Michael Caine buddy picture, which was an adaptation of a really forgotten Marlon Brando/David Niven vehicle from 1964 called Bedtime Story.

The basic plot's still intact. Lawrence (Tom Hewitt), suave and soign, works the Riviera, pretending to be a prince -- or "prance," as those comic French pronounce it -- while he fleeces rich lambs and randy widows out of their jewels. In cahoots with the local police chief (Drew McVety), who gets a percentage of the swindle for looking the other way, Lawrence is sitting pretty -- that is, until he sits on a whoopee cushion by the name of Freddy (Butz). Classless and crude, Freddy calmly blackmails Lawrence into teaching him the velvet ropes. They become unlikely partners, then adversaries. Because the Riviera isn't big enough for both of them, they make a bet: Whoever cons $50,000 out of the newly arrived "Soap Queen of America" (Laura Marie Duncan) gets the Riviera all to himself, and the loser leaves Dodge.


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-629-3700.

Through October 1. $25 - $61.

This fluffy musical, without a thought in its low-rent head, is so pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein it's almost a throwback to the vaudeville shows of Weber & Fields, with its dueling comics, busty chorus line, silly songs, corny gags, requisite second banana couple finding love and parodies of contemporaneous shows playing on the Great White Way. The show reeks of the smutty humor of so many of today's comedy TV shows, but it's just not bold enough to be truly tasteless. Freddy's nonstop "blue" material wouldn't put a blush on Sophie Tucker. Nonthreatening, it's designed to please -- like Las Vegas.

What's absolutely unique here, though, is the must-see performance by Butz, which deservedly won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Performance in a Musical. He's his own Ziegfeld Follies, Barnum & Bailey and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The man will do anything for a laugh -- scratch his bare butt, dry hump Lawrence -- and there's nothing his fireplug, Buddha-belly body can't do. He belts out a tune like a female Merman, dances like a rubber-limbed Astaire and mugs like all three of the Marx Brothers. You can't take your eyes off him. Even his throwaway business stops the show -- there's nothing funnier than Butz trying to chew off a piece of beef jerky. He also can do sexy hip-hop moves, strutting, primping and rapping his paean to the imminent good life in the opening number, "Great Big Stuff." And he expertly mocks all those soaring pop anthems in "Love Is My Legs," as Freddy pretends to be a paraplegic war vet so he can bed the Soap Queen. (This musical is no My Fair Lady.)

The other cast members can't compete with Butz's insanities (nor should they), but they're savvy showbiz veterans who know how to play off -- and sometimes, around -- him and still make an impression. Hewitt, sonorous of voice, is all oil-slick sophistication; Duncan is cotton-candy sexiness with leather lungs; and McVety and Hollis Resnik are the sexed-up odd couple, whose morning-after balcony scene is deadpan raunch played as if written by Molire. All the actors elevate the low comedy like helium.

Yazbek's sparkling score effervesces with more beer than champagne, but he knows how to knock off a tuneful parody of Cole Porter or Dr. Dre. His one true ballad, "Love Sneaks In," sung by a smitten Lawrence, is genuinely beautiful, just out of place among all the Catskill shtick. And his lyrics are as clever as Sondheim's, shot through with internal rhymes and high-toned references. He even lampoons all-American classic show tunes, cheekily rhyming "Oklahoma" with "melanoma."

Still, don't expect anything special from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels except for Butz and his inspired, over-the-top performance. "What you lack in grace," says Lawrence to Freddy at play's end, "you certainly make up for in vulgarity." That's the right epitaph for this show, too.


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