Karl Hamilton, Kaci Scott, and Carl Hendin in Dirty Rotten ScoundrelsSome 20 minutes before the finale to the Timber Lake Playhouse's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, you'll finally hear something that you hadn't heard once during the musical's first two hours: a legitimately sincere number. Granted, this romantic ballad is being sung by a practiced con man, and the object of his affection is a young woman from whom he's trying to swindle 50 grand, and he's only been hitting on her to prevent his rival from scoring first. But, hey, sincerity is sincerity, and besides, it's the only heartfelt moment you're gonna get.

For Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - based on 1988's Steve Martin/Michael Caine comedy, with music and lyrics by The Full Monty's David Yazbek - is spectacularly insincere, as well as cheeky, rude, and inexhaustibly self-referential. It's also, under Brad Lyons' direction, an almost criminal amount of fun. This wickedly entertaining presentation is not Timber Lake's 2009 swan song, but if you've missed out on the theatre's four previous offerings, this is your last chance to see its summer-stock company en masse before the guest artists of the season-closing Buddy: The Buddy Story take the stage. And trust me, you'll want to. Over the past two months, this ferociously gifted ensemble has exuded, and delivered, so much infectious joy in their craft that, in truth, I drove home from the Mt. Carroll venue kind of depressed. I was never personally introduced to any of these performers, and still wasn't ready to say goodbye to them.

Lyons' production of Scoundrels actually finds leading performer Karl Hamilton, a Timber Lake veteran also recruited for Buddy, making his first appearance in the theatre's 2009 season, but it's an easy guess that I'll miss him, too. Sardonic, suave, and frequently fall-down funny, Hamilton plays Lawrence Jameson, an unapologetic cad who spends his summers preying on desperate, guileless women - and their pocketbooks - at a posh resort in the French Riviera. With the aid of his officious accomplice, Andre (David Herr), Lawrence's schemes are going along swimmingly until the arrival of Freddie Benson (Carl Hendin), a crass American lout of equally larcenous intent.

As those who've seen the movie know, the two quickly team up, and just as quickly compete, to steal the loot from the vacationing, accident-prone sweetheart Christine Colgate (Kaci Scott). Somewhat incredibly, I haven't seen the movie version - at least, not in its entirety - and consequently might've been more susceptible to the show's farcical charms and daffy plot twists than most. Yet I can't imagine the material being served better than by Yazbek's fiendishly witty score, with its hilarious, pop-culture-savvy lyrics that suggest Sondheim with a subscription to Entertainment Weekly. And in Hamilton and the sensationally inspired and ballsy Hendin, this particular Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is fortunate enough to feature a true musical-comedy dream pairing, with Hamilton's urbane sleaze brilliantly offset by Hendin's megalomaniacal ecstasy. (Freddy's giddy power anthem is titled "Great Big Stuff." This show is big, great stuff.)

Given the wondrously clever, ebullient choreography by James Beaudry, excellent set and costume design by Stephen D. English and Leah Dueno, and consistently captivating effects by lighting designer Brian Hoehne - whose stunning work on Timber Lake's recent Wait Until Dark I senselessly forgot to praise - there isn't a scene here that doesn't give you visual bang for your buck. (Considering how roundly incredible the cast's vocals are, you'll get plenty of aural bang, too.) Plus, Lyons stages no end of fantastically smart and funny bits; every one of Thursday's deliriously meta, fourth-wall-busting gags earned cackles from the audience, and during her introductory number, Christine's hysterically oblivious stomp on a pet's carrying case was a literal howl.

Your most memorable sights, however, are likely to be the thrillingly confident, invested faces and physicalizations of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' cast. Hamilton delivers peerlessly aggrieved and incredulous reactions, and Hendin throws himself into his role with such indelible comic gusto that it's almost frightening. (During the scene in which Freddy assumes the role of Lawrence's diaper-wearing, half-wit "brother," it actually is frightening.) Yet everyone here, from the chorus to the leads, is in smashing form, and there are several supporting performers on-hand to take turns stealing the show: Scott, a breathtakingly pretty, sneakily subversive comedienne (Christine's romantic duet with Freddy, "Love Is My Legs," is a nutjob classic); Sainty Reid, lending outstanding vigor to her grinning hayseed, Jolene; Herr and Jamie Finkenthal, whose tentative flirtation as Andre and the randy divorcée, Muriel, morphs from sweetness to shocking, riotous hunger. (After this pairing and their married-couple bickering in June's Lend Me a Tenor, Herr and Finkenthal are officially my favorite stage couple of 2009.)

All told, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a 140-minute stage offering without a dull or uncommitted moment in it. And if this review reads more like a thank-you note than a critique, that's absolutely intentional; it takes an extraordinary amount of effort to make a season this superb look like practically no effort at all. So, for those Timber Lake participants who won't be directly involved with Buddy, thank you. You've made the work from this end feel as carefree as summer vacation.


For tickets and information, call (815)244-2035 or visit TimberLakePlayhouse.org.

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