Ryan Cordero was vacationing in Fiji, reading the script for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” when an idea came to him.
The stage will be round.
And not just that, the young director thought. The stage would be round, and the audience would be segregated, sort of like the legislators in the House of Representatives. Except here, the divide wouldn’t be based on party affiliation or ideology; it’d be based on character identification.
“Half the audience will be rooting for one con man, Freddy, the other half will be rooting for the other, Lawrence,” Cordero said. “And we’re really looking for audiences to scream, hoot, holler, boo. If we had popcorn and vegetables, I would want them to throw them at certain moments.”
As Cordero plans to stage his version of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at the Clark Center for a three-week run, think of it as sort of a wrestling match, except there are no punches thrown. Ribbing, maybe. But no punches.
“We hope it’s almost like a sporting event,” said Greg Correia, who will play Freddy Benson, the scrappy American hustler. “People will get kind of pumped up.”
You might not know there’s a musical version of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” But chances are you’ve at least heard of the 1988 movie with Michael Caine and Steve Martin as two competing crooks who prey on the well-to-do.
Just like the movie — a remake of the David Niven comedy “Bedtime Story” — the musical starts with Benson asking a much more successful Riviera swindler, Lawrence Jamieson, for advice.
He starts out as Jamieson’s shill, but the elder, more sophisticated Jamieson soon decides the town is only big enough for one con man, and the two place a bet: The first to scam a woman out of $50,000 gets to stay.
As you can imagine, scoundrels don’t exactly play fair — as if there were any rules in a flimflam.
With this musical, Cordero, a Cal Poly graduate who launched Sorcerer Productions two years ago, establishes himself as a director of comedies.
“I guess you could say that’s my forte,” he said.
His first two productions — “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “The Producers”— were also comedies. And as soon as he saw the touring rights to “Scoundrels” become available, he knew he had a trifecta.
“I’ve been waiting patiently for the rights to become available,” he said.
While Cordero is sticking with a familiar genre, he’s also taking comfort in a known cast. He’s worked with all three leads: Correia, a former classmate at Cal Poly; Jeff Salisbury, who co-starred in “The Producers”; and Natalia Berryman, who acted in the SLO Little Theatre’s “Swingin’ With Sinatra” with him (and with Salisbury, who played a younger Ole Blue Eyes).
Touring productions are generally expected to stick to the script, but Cordero’s round stage format will encourage audiences to become more active in the show.
“We’re probably going to have a list of questions,” he said. “If you answer them more like Lawrence would answer them, we’ll encourage you to sit in Lawrence’s section, and vice versa.”
Crowd interactions will likely force some improv out of the actors.
“It’s challenging — you have to be on your toes —but it’s what we want,” said Berryman, who plays Christine, the swindlers’ target or, in conspeak, the “mark.”
As such, Berryman will not only be an audience favorite — “I get to make the audience fall in love with me” — but also the object of both cons’ affections. Because, it turns out, they’re not just after her money.
“Watching them have jealous moments is any girl’s dream,” she said of the actors. “And they do it so well. Sometimes I think, ‘Is this acting or is this really going on?’ ”
While the scoundrels are engaged in a duel, they are also two of a kind. So there is a certain kinship.
“There’s romance, and there’s also a certain amount of bromance,” Salisbury said.
One thing fans of the movie will quickly notice is the music. After all, the film wasn’t a musical. But the play, which debuted on Broadway in 2005, is.
During a recent rehearsal at a Pismo Beach church, cast members rehearsed a dance sequence to a Latin number. But the show features a variety of styles — from jazz and Western to ’80s rock.
“Those songs represent the characters brilliantly,” Cordero said.
Because of the small stage — the show will be held in the Clark Center’s smaller room — a live band wouldn’t work. The songs are being pre-recorded by local musician Dave Becker.
Though Cordero was just a toddler when the movie came out in 1988, the well-received film is still fresh in the minds of many. Still, Cordero doesn’t think audience members will associate the musical characters with the film actors.
“A lot of people we talk to are like, ‘Oh my gosh —Steve Martin was great. How are you going to match Steve Martin?’ ” Cordero said. “In my eyes, it’s not about re-creating what Steve Martin did. It’s about doing our own version and saying this is the way we interpreted it. And it may not be what Steve Martin did, but it’s funny just the same.”
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.