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Fifty Million Frenchmen

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - September 29, 2019

Kristy Cates, Cole Burden, Ashley Blanchet, Wade McCollum, Andy Kelso,
Evy Ortiz, Ray DeMattis, Karen Murphy, Madeline Trumble,
David Michael Bevis
Photo by Ben Strothmann

Fifty million Frenchmen, the old saying goes, can't be wrong. And Fifty Million Frenchmen, the opening shot in Musicals in Mufti's new Cole Porter three-parter, can't be wrong, either. The 1929 hit is a whoop of joy from the late Jazz Age with one of Porter's sauciest, most impudent scores. And if the book, by Herbert Fields, isn't a humdinger, it doesn't overly get in the way of the fun, either. That said, this Mufti does screw a couple of things up.

Not at the start, with Evans Haile, an old hand at this sort of thing, leading the three-piece orchestra (David Hancock Turner on second piano, Dan Erben on banjo) in a rollicking overture that begins with "You Do Something to Me" and travels from strength to strength. The book, whittled down from the original by Haile and Tommy Krasker to accommodate a 1991 staging for Porter's centennial, mocks Americans in Paris and also takes a few swipes at Gallic pretension.

Fields sets it up efficiently: Looloo Carroll (Evy Ortiz), touring the City of Light with her unsophisticated Hoosier parents (Karen Murphy and Ray DeMattis), is wooed by Peter (Andy Kelso), a callow New York man-about-town. Peter bets his buddy Billy (Cole Burden) that he can get Looloo to accept his proposal within a month, all the while handing his savings over to Billy and living on what he earns in Paris. Meanwhile, his other buddy Michael (David Michael Bevis) romances Joyce (Madeline Trumble), while Billy chases after Violet (Kristy Cates). That's about it, except for the unctuous Pernasse (Wade McCollum) harassing Peter for his hotel bill, and Mr. and Mrs. Carroll trying to set Looloo up with a count. Oh, and chanteuse May (Ashley Blanchet) popping in to sing some naughty Porter songs. The fadeout's unsurprising, and the humor's limited mainly to mild insults: "Do you mind if I smoke?" "I don't care if you burn!" (Fields liked that one so much he used it again, word for word, in Something for the Boys.)

But the book is, as it so often was in Porter shows, just a bare-bones tree on which to hang the nifty musical ornaments. Violet, it turns out, is a buyer for a firm that deals in ladies' fur coats. Why? So she can sing a list song about fur coats. Mrs. Carroll is disappointed in her failure at social climbing. Why? So Violet can comfort her with "The Tale of the Oyster," one of Porter's nuttiest satirical lyrics ever. In Krasker and Haile's downsizing (to a cast of eleven; the original had over 100), it's all over in under two hours. Is there a happy ending? Do you really have to ask?

All we can reasonably demand, then, is that the Porter be performed well, with strong voices that can put over the lyrics and soigne, period-accurate attitudes. And here this Mufti, uncharacteristically, frequently falls short. Kelso is a personable Peter, but he has next to no voice, and he could barely project Porter's evergreen "You Do Something to Me" over the two pianos. Bevis is similarly light-voiced, and you have to strain to hear him try to put over Porter's polished "You've Got That Thing." Blanchet is certainly a looker, with an elegant stage presence, but she doesn't pour a lot of interpretation into "Find Me a Primitive Man" or "I'm Unlucky at Gambling," the second verse of which boasts one of Porter's most outrageous jokes.

Ortiz, on the other hand, has a lovely soprano with impressive top notes; she's just stuck with some of the lesser ballads. Murphy, whom I've adored ever since Zombie Prom, makes the most of her one number. DeMattis's crass Midwesterner finds laughs where other actors wouldn't, and McCollum, with thin material, comes the closest to building an actual character. There's also choreography, by Trent Kidd, mainly a surefooted tap for "You've Got That Thing," and a "Let's Step Out" strut for Ortiz and Trumble that really does bounce. Reza Behjar's lighting is fairly elaborate for a Mufti — and the production isn't entirely mufti, either, what with a costume change here and there and some sparkling jewelry crossing the stage. Scripts, as usual, are in hand, somewhat limiting movement, but director Hans Friedrichs does have some clever little staging ideas, notably a Les Miz-mocking finale.

In a couple of weeks we get The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter, a songbook retrospective that was well received in the mid-'60s that will boast a high-powered cast, and then, a couple of weeks after that, the Ethel Merman vehicle Panama Hattie, with Klea Blackhurst, the closest thing we have to a modern-day Merm, belting it out. I'm looking forward to both, and I had a good time at Fifty Million Frenchmen. But Mufti, please, next time around, do go out and find more lung power.

Fifty Million Frenchmen
Through October 6
The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's, 619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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