Masquerade Theatre Has a Ball with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The setup:

Don't take my word for it, listen to the slick con men sing in Masquerade Theatre's slick production of the Tony Award-winning 2005 musical: "It was a blast, it was a ball. It was a gas, I loved it all." That says just about everything, except this: Go and be thoroughly entertained.

The execution: Written by the creative team of Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics), whose previous work includes the prize-winner The Full Monty and the less successful Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, this fun-filled show has been adapted from the somewhat 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 intact. Lawrence (Luther Chakurian), suave and soigné, works the Riviera pretending to be a prince -- or "prance" as those comic French pronounce it -- while he fleeces rich, randy widows out of their jewels. In cahoots with the local police chief (Adam W. Delka), who gets a percentage of the swindle for looking the other way, Lawrence is sitting pretty, until he sits on a whoopee cushion by the name of Freddy (Michael J. Ross). 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 from the newly arrived "Soap Queen of America" (Laura Babbitt) will have the Riviera all to himself, and the loser must leave Dodge.

This vehicle has a pepped-up chassis, glitzy paint job, and reeks of smutty humor, but its tastelessness is harmless and put over by the masters at Masquerade with a finesse bordering on Astaire. Let Mr. Ross loose on a bad pun, and his tongue in cheek goes into overdrive. Give him a great gimmick like chawin' down on a leathery beef jerky, and his entire body goes into spasms as he tears into it. Put him in a wheelchair, supposedly without feeling in his legs (he thinks this come-on will get the girl into bed) and let Chakurian's character torture him, and watch his successive expressions -- and you'd swear you're watching some great silent film comedian at the peak of his powers. Or just let him fly with the over-the-top rap of "Great Big Stuff," Freddie's low-rent credo -- "And Hef'll have me over / To play some naked Twister / Blotto in the Grotto / With a Playmate and her sister" -- and you might as well serve up the show on a platter and present it to him on bended knee. He's that good!

The show is blessed with a troika of supporting roles that keep this throwback to early Broadway percolating at full boil: Delka, with able-bodied support from the never-fail Kristina Sullivan, as obtuse yet eager-for-romance Muriel, and Lendsey Kersey, as pint-sized super-heated Jolene from Oklahoma, who threatens Lawrence at gunpoint, adds immense charm and good will to the proceedings. Ms. Babbitt, as Christine Colgate, the wholesome bubbly Soap Queen, is always a delectable comedian and Broadway belter, and she does double duty here as the winning choreographer whose pacing of the many dance numbers keeps the show perpetually on the prowl. The "Magnificent 10" ensemble, whether doing the tango, moving the furniture or dutifully dusting the staircase, always does the right thing, as do maestro Dominique Royem and her intrepid octet of an orchestra. Director Phillip Duggins, he of the sure eye, keeps the whole show within its tone of outrageousness, managing to rein in the crass and turn it into class.

The verdict:

"What you lack in grace," appraises Lawrence to Freddy at play's end, "you certainly make up for in vulgarity." That's an appropriate epitaph for the show, too. Except he forgot to add, fun.

Funny con men, singing and dancing on the Riviera, can be seen through February 26 at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm; Sunday at 2 pm. Purchase tickets online at or call 713-TMT-9696.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover