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Riviera ladies love their Jersey Joe Piscopo

Published: September 1, 2009

Joe Piscopo struck comic gold in the '80s with his impressions of Frank Sinatra on "Saturday Night Live."

"When I was 21, it was a VERY good year . . ."

It was a hoot. But who noticed that he actually hit the notes? Some would say, "I've heard Frank Sinatra and you're no Chairman of the Board, Joe." But who is?

"Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," as directed by Keith Andrews for this Gateway Playhouse Long Island premiere, seduces us into accepting Joe from Jersey as a romantic leading man. It helps that his competition is Freddy, an uncouth upstart con man, played with overripe relish by Harris Doran. (His Freddy's the kind of guy who doesn't use deodorant.) Christine Colgate - we're meant to get the "Soap Queen" connection - is vulnerable in a foxy sort of way. She's played by an actress with a name favored for melodrama damsels in distress. Nell Mooney hits all the right song and dance notes. too.

"Dirty Rotten," the movie and multi-Tony-nominated Broadway musical (it won a statuette for Norbert Leo Butz as Freddy), takes its title from the admirably bad behavior of con artists working the French Riviera, where the marks can afford to be taken. One such mark is Muriel, an Omaha dowager desperate for a fling. (Rebecca Baxter allows us to see right through her on the funny/sad "What Was a Woman to Do?") After Piscopo's con man character, faux suave Lawrence Jameson, moves on, Muriel falls for his hapless gendarme accomplice (Nathan Klau).

Along the way, an Oklahoma oil heiress, flittingly determined as played by Hallie Metcalf, inadvertently inspires the mentor/tormentor relationship between Freddy and Lawrence, who lets his Jersey roots show when his guard is down.

You know you're on the Riviera by the lighting of Marcia Madeira, who gives the Mediterranean its sparkle. Jeffrey Buschbaum's brassy orchestra makes the most of an uninspired score by David Yazbek, whose snappy lyrics offer atonement.

But Piscopo pulls a Sinatra on us in the "Love Sneaks In" ballad. After seeing Piscopo's portrayal of him, Sinatra began referring to him as "Vice Chairman of the Board." It's an honor that Piscopo doesn't abuse.
Delicious 'Rotten Scoundrels' at Gateway

Published: September 1, 2009

Take the French Riviera of “La Cage aux Folles,” add in “My Fair Lady” (though, because of the sex of this Galatea, maybe “My Fair Laddy”), throw in a dynamite singing and dancing chorus, mix well with a “Saturday Night Live” alumnus and a super strong supporting cast, and you have the present, delicious Gateway/Patchogue production of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

Much, much credit for this stylish and satisfyingly smooth mounting of the recent Broadway musical goes to director/choreographer Keith Andrews, whose sophisticated stage pictures and elegant choreography and antic sense of pace rarely let the action sag—even when the middle of the second act deflates under the actors like an old party balloon. That’s the fault of book writer Jeffrey Lane, who, for the rest of the show, thankfully provides enough situations and laughs to match the cast’s airborne jollity.

And credit for the dynamic quality of the goings on should also be given to musical director Jeffrey Buchsbaum, who, as usual, plumbs the music for all it’s worth, gets the most out of his pit orchestra and powers the show forward at mach speed.

As elsewhere in this 60th Gateway season, there’s a sumptuousness about this production and a glitter to the costumes that are both delightful on the eyes, as are the chorines. Once again, casting director Robin Joy Allan has brought together a dynamic bunch of amazing singer-dancers and strong principals to back up the Gateway’s star snagging of Joe Piscopo for the lead originated on Broadway in the 2005 production by John Lithgow.

Mr. Piscopo doesn’t disappoint his fans, delivering a socko comic performance that earns him his star entrance. Suave, striding the stage with the comfortable ease of a star and the flawless timing that earned him his television mantle, he deserved every one of the many ovations he received on opening night.

The show is a showcase for scoundrels outwitting other scoundrels. They come in all sizes and sexes, and, as Freddy, the scoundrel-in-the rough that Joe Piscopo, as Lawrence Jameson, polishes to an almost fine luster, Harris Doran does an excellent job, filling easily the scuffed shoes of Norbert Leo Butz, who co-starred in the original and went on to star in the national company.

Mr. Doonan matches Mr. Piscopo in comic takes and, adding pratfalls and wacky costumes, establishes his own comic identity. And his singing voice is strong and true, particularly in the lovely ballad “Nothing Too Wonderful To Be True,” sung feelingly with Nell Mooney, as the wacky-with-a purpose soap heiress, Christine.

Ms. Mooney shines on her own, too, dancing up a storm and singing, with a dippy nasal delivery, some of the brighter of the songs of Davis Yazbek’s serviceable score.

As Muriel, the strong-willed, strong-voiced womanly match for Mr. Piscopo’s Lawrence Jameson, Rebecca Baxter delivers an impressive, commanding presence to the fevered goings on. Her “What Was a Woman to Do?’ is a star turn all in itself.

Hallie Metcalf, tall and slim and possessed of a long mane of flaming hair, tears up the stage with her big first-act number “Oklahoma?” and generally lights up the Riviera. And Nathan Klau, as Andre, the Clouzot-inspired detective, is also a bright presence, with a keen sense of the wacky that works.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” began as a hit movie, and its musical incarnation maintains the spirit of the original. The super looking and sounding Gateway production keeps the luster shining. It’s a solid, summer laughfest.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” continues at Gateway’s Patchogue Theatre location every night but Monday and in several matinees a week through September 12. For tickets, call the box office at 286-1133 or 1-888-4tixnow.