Fifty Million Frenchmen - a showcase of Cole Porter’s hits
- is as light and frothy as a French meringue.
FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMEN
By Rachel Pacelli
The York Theatre Company’s Fifty Million Frenchmen is part
of their “Musicals in Mufti series”, or “in street clothes”. Having only 40
hours of rehearsal, the sets are bared down, production is simpler, and the
mostly off-book actors are holding scripts in their hands. With this said,
street clothes are more than enough to put on an entertaining show.
Fifty Million Frenchmen first opened in New York in 1929
with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Herbert Fields, and a cast close
to 100 performers. Initially met with mixed reviews, composer Irving Berlin
called it “The best musical comedy I have seen in years”. After an illustrious
254 performances, the show’s script was boxed away into oblivion. It wasn’t
until 50 years later that Frenchman was rediscovered in a Warner Bros.
warehouse, leading to the 1991 adaptation by Tommy Krasker and Evans Haile.
This is the version used in York Theatre’s limited 11-performance run.
The story is set in Paris, and follows a young, wealthy American
man, Peter (Andy Kelso), who makes a bet with his buddies that he can live for
a month without his money. He must also find a way to become engaged to a young
woman, Looloo (Evy Ortiz), with whom he has fallen in love.
Peter takes a job as a tour guide and, as expected in musicals of
this era, entanglements ensue as a couple of eccentric women become interested
in him. Meanwhile Looloo has to fight off the advancements of Peter’s friend,
Billy (Cole Burden). Throw in a subplot at the races, a misunderstanding, a
comedic French waiter, and you’ve got yourself a musical comedy!
Suffice it to say, the plot and characters are thin and
stereotypical, but this is to be expected. There’s decent comedy and jokes
throughout, but they are sometimes dated, and don’t always land. The musical
numbers, though, take up the bulk of the show, and this is where the performers
Credit goes to Dan Ernest on banjo, and David Hancock Turner and
Evans Haile (musical director) on two different pianos that sit across from one
another. This immediately creates a harmonic mirroring as the show opens to an
overture with a backdrop of black and white videos of Paris. This is vaguely
reminiscent of a Woody Allen film in setting the scene, and allowing the city
to become a character of its own.
The director, Hans Friedrichs, also gets praise for creating
Paris. The stage may be small, but he uses every ounce of it to bring us into
this world. His staging - particularly for the race scene - is well crafted and
helps fill in the audience’s imagination. The backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, as
well, on “You Don’t Know Paree” is stunning (“Paree will still be laughing
after ev’ry one of us disappears/But never once forget, her laughter is the
laughter that hides the tears”).
Though the show is “in street clothes”, costuming is also nicely
designed, with a few elegant dresses and French waiter’s garbs coming to mind.
The biggest problem, though, is that while the live music is
beautiful to listen to, it overpowers some of the singers, oftentimes muffling
their lines. Andy Kelso, as Peter, is often a casualty, while stronger
powerhouses like Madeline Trumble (as Looloo’s friend Joyce), Kristy Cates
(Violet), and Ashley Blanchet (May de Vere) overcome this. It gets better in
the second act, due to different staging, but is a problem for much of the
Pace, as well, is a little slow at times in the first act, not
from transitions but perhaps from a little less energy and lower plot stakes.
However, the second act fixes these problems and flies by!
Even with some difficulties, there are multiple standout numbers.
Ashley Blanchet as a flirtatious singing waitress completely commands the stage
with sheer confidence and pizzazz. Madeline Trumble, as well, holds a large
amount of presence from the first moment she’s onstage, and shows more of an
emotional range than is displayed by a few other characters. She particularly
stands out in a tap number of “You’ve Got That Thing” with David Michael Bevis
(Michael) which makes you hunger for more tap through the rest of the play.
This is a shining moment for Bevis, as well, who can’t always get his jokes to
Evy Ortiz (Looloo) has a gorgeous voice and is absolutely
adorable, and Wade McCollum as Louis Pernasse, a poor duke with a thick French
accent, is hilarious. Major props go to Sam Balzac as the waiter. Donning a
thick mustache, thicker French accent, and various hats - quite literally - he
makes up the comedic gravitas of Fifty Frenchmen.
Ray DeMattis as Looloo’s father, Emmitt, is often a bit forced in
his delivery. His level of energy, though, is welcome onstage, especially in
contrast to Kelso’s more subdued demeanor.
Underutilized in the first act, Karen Murphy (Looloo’s mother,
Gladys) resonates in the second with a melancholic solo about unfulfilled
longing, “The Queen of Terre Haute”, (“I still feel there’s something
lacking/And that fate has rather let me down”).
The biggest shoutout of the night goes to Kristy Cates as a lusty
fur-buyer. Cates not only has impeccable comedic timing, but gives one of the
best performances of “The Tale of the Oyster” you’ll ever see. Though an odd
song with no real context in the play, (“Down by the sea lived a lonesome
oyster/Every day getting sadder and moister”), Cates makes it an unforgettable
Fifty Million Frenchmen is joyful escapism into a world
filled with romantics and dreamers singing Cole Porter’s greatest hits. You’ll
leave the theater with a smile while humming “You’ve Got That Thing” on repeat
and, really, what better way to spend an evening?
Fifty Million Frenchmen closed October 6.
MUSICALS IN MUFTI SERIES:
The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the
Eyes of Cole Porter
October 12-20, 2019
October 26-November 3, 2019
The York Theatre Company, at Saint Peter’s
619 Lexington Ave, entrance on East 54th St
For more information, visit yorktheatre.org or phone the box
office at (212) 935-5820