Julia Gagne brings ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ to Garden Theatre


James Tutten / Valencia Voice

Director Julia Gagne taught for 30 years as the theater department chair.

WINTER GARDEN — Admirers of musical comedies and live theater who love to laugh were given exactly what they want with the premiere of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at the Garden Theatre on Friday, Jan. 31.

“The staff here has been fantastic, without exception,” said the play’s director Julia Gagne when asked about her experience working at the Garden Theatre for the first time. “They’ve been supportive of the entire process and go out of their way to make things easier for us.”

This relationship between cast, production staff, and venue has created a highly entertaining musical production that delivered the goods to theatergoers.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is very silly and blatantly over-the-top at times, just like the 1988 film (by the same name) that it’s based on. Its story is focused on two con men taking advantage of rich women in southern France, who eventually fight it over to see which one of them can bamboozle a young heiress for $50,000. This comedy stays consistently funny, highlighted by moments of outright hilarity found during some of the more eccentric musical numbers.

This show is also very aware that it’s a musical comedy and doesn’t take everything too seriously, even breaking the fourth wall with the audience at times. Under the skilled direction of Gagne and the rest of the production staff, this musical found a delicate balance between focused themes in the story and sprinklings of outright insanity.

Leading the charge in focused rationality is the unflappable veteran con man Lawrence Jameson played by David Almeida. Jameson is confident, intelligent, articulate,

David Almeida (right) plays the leading role of Lawrence Johnson in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

and a borderline sociopath, who targets rich women for their money to maintain his playboy lifestyle by roping them in with a fictional tale proclaiming he’s a downtrodden royal fighting an underground revolution.

“I tend to be drawn to projects that are a little bit off-center,” said Almeida. “I love doing roles that other people haven’t done very often and many haven’t seen before.” Using his nearly 30 years of acting experience, Almeida brings a steady control to this character as he brilliantly balances out the shenanigans of his young and ambitious competitor.

A polar opposite to Jameson’s charm is a brash, unpredictable, and devious deceiver named Freddy Benson played by Wesley Slade. Benson is unashamedly bold with his con-man strategy, willing to do anything to anyone,

simply for the thrill of the scam. Slade’s performance is sublimely entertaining when he’s at his wildest, highlighted by his portrayal of Ruprecht, a grotesque and absurd pretend brother of Jameson who could make any family’s black sheep sibling look like a Nobel Prize winner.

“This really is a dream role for me,” said Slade. “I’ve been a big fan of the show and the movie, and it was the first show that I saw on Broadway.” Slade moved to Florida from Mississippi back in August of last year, and his first local performance was alongside his current co-star Almeida for “Sunday in the Park with George” at Orlando’s Mad Cow Theatre.

Both of these scalawags find a singular goal after making a “loser leaves town” bet to scam the beautiful traveling beneficiary named Christine Colgate played by Jillian Gizzi. She is awkward at times, enthusiastic in her naivety and refreshingly kind at heart. Gizzi’s portrayal of Colgate is wonderfully refined from every moment be it flustered to fancy, and also shines on stage with her remarkable singing ability.

An eclectic mix of music is another gem scattered throughout “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” Rightly starting off this musical is “Give Them What They Want,” performed with a simple and warm tone by Almeida, and lays the foundation for a core message to the overall story. Gizzi magnificently crafted a sweet and soft vibrato during the optimistic serenade “Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True.” And the upbeat and zany cabaret “All About Ruprecht” easily brought the biggest laughs from the night, thanks to Slade’s avant-garde slapstick performance.

Jillian Gizzi stars in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

Supervising all the music that breathes life into this production is musical director Tim Hanes who said “This cast has been wonderful. Early on in this process we made the selections of the main characters and I wouldn’t change a person.”

The entire cast and ensemble do a fantastic job in supporting the flow of this play. The side love-story between Andre Thibault played by Keith Smith and Muriel Eubanks played by Merry Ellen Williams becomes a collection of touching moments and enjoyable comedy. And the coarse enthusiasm of Shannon Lynch who plays Jolene Oakes makes for a great musical number about the joys of living in Oklahoma, before she eventually falls prey to the antics of an untamed Ruprecht.

Sadly, there was also an unfortunate technical problem with a malfunctioning microphone near the end of the first act, but this was covered by other cast members and fixed by the crew during intermission.

Overall this production of  “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” was highly entertaining and easily earned the standing ovation by audience members on opening night. If you come prepared to laugh and be entertained, this musical will certainly give you what you want and even throw in a surprise or two for anyone not familiar with the story.

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at the Garden Theatre is playing on select days until Sunday, Feb. 23. Showtimes are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Tickets for general admission will be $29, with a discounted rate of $25 for students and seniors. More information can be found at the Garden Theatre’s website and advanced tickets can be purchased through Vendini.

(Taken from Feb. 5 issue)