The sets and props are top notch, perfectly creating the opulent ambience of the Riveria in a bygone era (I loved the comic use of the topiary). Sunderland Empire’s Baroque theatre is perfect for the French Riveria setting of the action. The costumes also deserve a mention for really nailing late 50s glamour, it’s all very Dior/New Look and is perfectly done. It’s quite rare for dancers to be great singers as well, and the multi-talented cast elevated all of the musical numbers. The choreography was quirky and fun, with nice touches like an usherette in the stalls who claimed to have been hoodwinked by Lawrence.
I love a good musical, and set it in the South of France with incredibly witty songs and a great cast and I’m sold. I was struggling to remember the exact plot of the 1988 movie starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine (upon which the musical is based), but it wasn’t a problem, it very quickly became clear what the premise was – a seasoned conman makes a living by fleecing rich older ladies in the glamourous French Riviera in the 50s. He comes across a young upstart who agrees (after much persuasion) him to teach him everything he knows. Cue comic mishaps, plenty of one-upmanship and one mammoth power struggle.
Being a fan of all things French, I was pulled in from the get go, even before the action started with the old fashioned French postcard style safety curtain which conveyed the charm of the Riviera in the 50s. Then the curtain went up and we were all sucked into the glamourous yet murky world of the career conman, the psychology of which was perfectly explained by the opening number “Give Them What They Want” (the hat part of the routine was particularly inspired). Basically, create a fantasy world for desperate people and don’t let your guard down, according to the narcissistic Lawrence Jameson (Michael Praed), our main protagonist. He sets his sights on the wildly rich Muriel Eubanks (Geraldine Fitzgerald), a do-gooder who falls for his story that he’s a philanthropic Prince. Comedy is provided by the bumbling Andre Thibault (Mark Benton), Lawrence’s right hand man – they manage to weave in his recent Strictly Come Dancing experience to comic effect.
Then Freddy Benson bursts onto the stage, the overconfident young American newcomer to the con scene, looking to get a slice of the action. Played by former pop star Noel Sullivan, he certainly brings musical talent to party, and great comic timing. Freddy convinces Lawrence to take him under his wing – you can sense a disaster waiting to happen. There were plenty of clever touches to the script, little asides keeping things modern mentioning the likes of the Kardashians and Richard Branson. One of Lawrence’s other scam projects, the rich but crazy Jolene Oakes (the hilarious Phoebe Coupe) tries to get Lawrence to go back to Oklahoma with her, and the song of the same name ensues, providing many laughs playing on the ridiculous notion of Lawrence ending up as some Texan cowboy. The laughs keep coming when Lawrence talks Freddy into pretending to be his mentally challenged brother Ruprecht to try and get rid of Jolene, with the supremely funny song All About Ruprecht (Noel hams this up perfectly). The songs are one of the major strong points of the show and manage to be riotously funny and poignant at the same time.
Then Christine Colgate turns up, the naïve American soap queen mistakenly believed to be rich by Lawrence and Freddy, her kindness of spirit slowly bewitches the two conmen. Freddy pretends to be a disabled veteran to pull on her heartstrings, dreaming up the most ridiculous condition which adds to the farce. Lawrence seizes his opportunity to break up the party by assuming the role of Dr Shuffhausen, a specialist who can cure Freddy’s “condition.” Freddy and Christine’s fledgling romantic feelings are solidified in “Nothing is too Wonderful to be True” which parodies smaltzy love songs, and Act 1 ends in joyous rapture.
Act 2 sees more madcap situations, with a cute subplot of Andre and Muriel falling for each other, and some hilarious post coital visual comedy. The songs in the second half aren’t as hilarious as the first, as the show gains more emotional depth and the conmen are forced to look at the errors of their ways. Everyone loves a good twist, and there’s no exception here, as both scammers are not as polished as they might like think they are. Who wins the battle of wits? You’ll have to go and see it to find out!
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