Enjoy a cruise down the French Riviera with Roger Hodgman’s award-winning production.

Theatre Royal, Sydney, October 24

Isn’t it refreshing to have a musical in Sydney that’s cast with people who are, in every conceivable way, qualified (in many cases, over-qualified) to play their roles? The closest thing to a reality star out of their depth is Matt Hetherington as Freddy. But the music theatre stalwart played this role to great acclaim long before he joined ‘Team Delta’ on The Voice, and absolutely excels this time around. The closest thing to a Bert Newton cameo is John Wood as André. But he’s charming, hilarious, and shows some surprising vocal talent. And at the centre of it all is Tony Sheldon, a true master of his craft.

Director Roger Hodgman’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels arrives like a breath of fresh air, with a bit of laughing gas mixed in. Based on the underrated 1988 Steve Martin and Michael Caine film of the same name, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels the musical is witty, brisk and full of madcap slapstick antics that escalate beautifully in the tradition of farce. The set-up is simple – two vastly different con men compete to see who can win a beautiful woman’s heart and money – but there are plenty of twists and turns along the way. It has the oh-so-satisfying structure of classic musical theatre, and, like the classics, the type of melodies you find yourself humming for days after.

The music and lyrics by David Yazbeck are smart, joyous and full of gags. Ranging from the Phil Collins, Gospel-inspired Love is My Legs, to the tender Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True, the score is brought to life by musical director Guy Simpson and a large orchestra (by musical theatre standards).

Jeffrey Lane’s book alternates between witty and intelligent, and fantastically cheap laughs. Shakespeare it ain’t, but it sure as hell does what it’s meant to. It’s particularly funny when the fourth wall is broken, and when there are jokes about the art of theatre (“Is the balcony moving?”).

Hodgman’s focus is exactly where it should be – on the performances, and on the laughs. That’s not to say that this isn’t an attractive production; there are classically beautiful costumes by Teresa Negroponte, seductive choreography by Dana Jolly, and a simple-yet-effective set by Michael Hankin, enhanced by Nicholas Rayment’s lighting. But Hodgman has found a brilliant comedic rhythm and shape to every scene.

As the two main scoundrels, Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington are miles apart, but completely in-sync. Sheldon’s Lawrence Jameson is the epitome of smooth, whereas Hetherington’s Freddy Benson is completely crass. Sheldon understands the kind of classic, character-based comedy that this show requires. He works like a comedic machine – every beat, every gesture is locked in, but delivered with such commitment that it feels completely fresh. It’s a real gift to have him back on Australian stages after his international success.

Hetherington’s slapstick is particularly impressive. He borrows a lot from Steve Martin, but pushes it even further so that it translates to stage. His vocal performance is absolutely stunning, and shows remarkable versatility.

Amy Lehpamer’s Christine Colgate is sugary sweet, and charmingly clumsy. She has the comedic chops to match Sheldon and Hetherington and sounds gorgeous, with warm lower tones and a crystalline belt. Anne Wood is comedy gold as Muriel Eubanks and works perfectly with John Wood’s Andre Thibault in the second act. And Katrina Retallick makes a big impact with little stage time as the gun-toting Yank, Jolene Oakes.

Opening night was met with an ecstatic, passionate standing ovation that erupted almost immediately. It was as much an ovation for the fine performances as it was for the producers behind the show, James Anthony Productions and George Youakim. This is their first big-scale musical, and it’s an exciting debut. They must be praised for having the ambition to stage something new, with a fantastic director, and a cast not packed full of television stars. Rather than banking on a below-par revival of Grease or Annie, they’ve shown a commitment to quality musical theatre, and a willingness to take risks to bring the best to our stages.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the funniest musical to hit Sydney in years, and it’s hard to recommend highly enough. Get yourself a ticket. Don’t miss these scoundrels.

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