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NEW YORK — Though the new Broadway musical “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” based on the 1988 movie featuring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, takes place up and down the Côte d’Azur, scenic designer David Rockwell had no intention of re-creating it onstage.

“There’s something so disinteresting about the real Riviera,” explains Rockwell. After all, it’s just beautiful vistas, beaches and palm trees. “There was nothing, literally, to take away from the movie.”

Part of Rockwell’s job, however, is reimagining the source material for a smaller canvas: in this case, the Imperial Theatre, where David Yazbek’s musical opens tonight. “Not knowing where to start is better than having a predetermined point of view,” Rockwell says of the challenge.

“The design is inspired as much by jewelry as it is by architecture,” he continues. The musical revolves around two con men who swindle wealthy women; obviously, expensive jewelry abounds in every scene. Rockwell ran with this theme in his plans for the set.

Sizable flat panels made from a variety of metals, including aluminum and steel, were painted to give the appearance of various finishes, such as wrought iron, pearl, gold and jewel-like tones. “There’s less room for error with minimalism,” Rockwell chuckles. These frameworks, then, were encrusted with jewels, crystals and glass beads — more than 400,000 in all.

“I’ve just never seen anything quite like this before,” says director Jack O’Brien, who also collaborated with Rockwell on Broadway’s “Hairspray,” which featured such pieces as a vertical bed and an enormous hairspray can. “This whole thing is a con,” he adds, referring to all the optical illusions. “But, theater is a con. We wanted to use all the manifestations of what that might be like.”

The casino set consists of a magnificent two-dimensional crystal chandelier, which dangles above a glittering roulette wheel — a Swarovski crystal-laden fanfare. “The chandelier is made of 12 different-sized crystals to force the perspective of that one plane,” Rockwell explains.

He also integrated the natural splendor of the Riviera into his dreamy, bejeweled vision for a garden sequence. Each palm-tree frond shimmers in gems, while vivid jewels set in gold braids snake up the trunks. The fixed background set is painted a pale blue, with the first 6 feet up the wall covered in “retro, light-reflecting” glass beads of a deeper blue. When lights hit the beads, they glint and twinkle, making the “waves” of the Mediterranean come to life, the designer points out.

This story first appeared in the March 3, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Rockwell’s aesthetic expertise goes beyond just theater sets. His company works on roughly 30 projects at a time, and past endeavors have included Nobu in TriBeCa, the Grand Central Terminal renovation and the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

“What I like to do is collaborate with different people, different projects and different worlds,” Rockwell says. “It’s all about creating solutions and telling stories.”

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