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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Cole Porter's 1929 Musical Fifty Million Frenchmen Is A Silly Souffle Of A Musical

Also see Richard's reviews of Dirty Story and A Christmas Carol

Fifty Million Frenchmen
Cynthia Myers with (clockwise from bottom left) Michael Cronin, Michael Patrick Gaffney, and David Martin
42nd Street Moon concludes its 2003 season with Cole Porter's unjustly neglected 1929 musical Fifty Million Frenchmen, with additional lyrics by Herbert Fields. This gem was first presented at the Lyric Theatre in New York on November 27, 1929, just one month before the stock market crash. It was the first full Cole Porter Broadway score and it was acclaimed by the New York critics. Running 254 performances, the production featured William Gaxton, Evelyn Hoey (her claim to fame was introducing "What Is This Thing Called Love?" in a later musical and infamously she either was murdered by the heir to a oil fortune or committed suicide). Also featured in the cast were Helen Broderick (mother of Broderick Crawford) and Thurston Hall (who later became a well known film character actor).

Warner Brothers purchased the rights to present Fifty Million Frenchmen on the screen with most of the Broadway cast intact. The rising comedy team of Olson and Johnson were brought in to provide the laughs. The film was to be released in 1931 with all musical numbers included. However, by release time, musicals had become box office poison, so Jack Warner took out all of the numbers and released a film that ran exactly 61 minutes. The critics called the film "an emasculated and ineffective comedy." It tanked at the box office and was never heard of again. Later, Warners made a two reel musical film with Bob Hope called Paree, Paree which incorporated some of the lost numbers. The film is shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies.

Fifty Million Frenchmen does not display the string of memorable songs that were found in Porter's later musicals like Kiss Me, Kate or Anything Goes, but it does feature "You Do Something to Me" immediately after the overture. Most of the songs are enjoyable, from the high spirited "Find Me a Primitive Man" to the bittersweet "You Don't Know Paree" (this song was very close to the composer's heart since he was lifelong admirer of Paris). The song "You Do Something to Me," which contains the line "Do do that voodoo that you do so well," has become a standard sung by many cabaret performers. Also "The Tale of the Oyster" and "I'm Unlucky at Gambling," two very witty songs in the second act, have become great favorites of cabaret singers.

In 1991, Tommy Krasker and Evan Halile restored the musical for a concert production at Mainstage at the 14th St. Y in New York. A CD was made of the concert and both were big critical successes. Two years later 42nd Street Moon presented a concert version as part of their inaugural season. Earlier this year, London audiences first saw the musical in a concert version at the studio theatre in the Royal Opera House of Convent Garden as part of their Lost Musicals series.

Forget the plot, because it is really a silly soufflé. Herbert Fields' book is a typical hodgepodge of '20s crazy story lines. The story takes place in Paris and you have the standard boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Rich gentleman of leisure Billy Baxter (Bill Fahrner) bets his best friend, very rich American Peter Forbes (Brad Shreve), a bundle of money that he can't win the heart of another rich American, flapper Looloo (Caroline Altman), in four weeks. The fly in the ointment is that Peter cannot spend a franc of his own money during that period and that means our hero has to get (horrors!) a job. So Peter gets a job as a tour guide in the city of lights (an American in Paris getting that job, didn't I tell you it was silly?). Of course, complications set in, but as in all good '20s musicals, everything ends OK for the final number.

Frenchmen's cast moves with elegance and refinement, and all of the performances are very delightful. The cast looks like they just stepped out of the '20s, with authentic gowns and tuxes to match the period. Caroline Altman (Bay Area Critic Award winner for Whispers on the Wind) and Brad Shreve (Marin Theatre productions of Wonderful Town and Me and My Girl) are engaging as LooLoo and Peter. Both are excellent in the song "You Do Something to Me." Shreve also has good pipes for the rousing "Do You Want to See Paris?" with an impressive chorus acting as American tourists in the background. Altman is also transcendent in "I'm In Love."

Bill Fahrner, a 42nd Street Moon regular who plays Peter's "best friend" Billy Baxter, is in good form in the song "I Worship You," with accents on the last word on each sentence in the lyrics. Lisa Peers is a pleasure as she steals scenes as the brassy, jaded American dame, and she is outstanding in telling "The Tale of the Oyster." Cynthia Myers (By Jupiter and Two Man Girls at 42nd Street Moon) plays a cabaret artiste and she is appropriately droll in ""I'm Unlucky at Gambling" and brassy in "The Boyfriend Back Home." Chris Macomber is grand good fun as Midwestern dowager Gladys Carroll, in search of a titled husband for her daughter LooLoo. She stops the show with her rendition of "The Queen of Terre Haute." The Continentals (Michael Patrick Gaffney, Michael Cronin and David Martin) give good harmony in their numbers, especially in the rendition of "Watching the World Go By" and "My Yankee Wench" and great backup to Cynthia Myers in "Find Me a Primitive Man." Alexandra Kaprielian is good as LooLoo's wisecracking best friend and does a very good interpretation of "Please Don't Make Me Be Good." Alexandra Kaprielian and Michael Cummins are charming in "You've Got That Thing."

Greg MacKellan's direction gives life to the old 1929 musical and presents it just as it was at the Lyric Theatre a month before the big depression. Once again, Dave Dobrusky gives an outstanding performance on the piano. Costumes by Sunnia Eastwood gave the production a 1920s look.

Fifty Million Frenchmen runs through December 28th at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street (Between Battery and Front) San Francisco. For tickets call 415-978-2787 or visit www.42ndStMoon.org.

The Company will open their 2004 season with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on March 24, 2004.


Photo: David Allen.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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