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Theatre in Review: Fifty Million Frenchmen (York Theatre Company)

Kristy Cates. Photo: Ben Strothmann.

For its latest round of Musicals in Mufti -- concert stagings of rarely seen shows -- York is paying tribute to Cole Porter, a plan likely to be endorsed by every right-thinking man, woman, and child in the five boroughs and beyond. The season kicks off with Fifty Million Frenchmen, a frolic from 1929 about a gaggle of rich Americans on a cocktail-fueled spree around Paris. Herbert Fields' book hinges on one of the most popular plot devices of between-the-wars musicals: the ludicrous, seemingly impossible, bet. (Really, absent a house party packed with bootleggers and/or jewel thieves, this was practically a book writer's only other option.) In this case, young Peter wagers his friend Michael that he can land Looloo -- a sweet and loaded young thing from Terre Haute -- in thirty days, without relying on his inheritance -- indeed while pretending to be poor. You needn't bother much about it -- nobody else does -- especially as there are several other couples storming the stage in hot pursuit, but some of the wisecracks are priceless. (A young swain, pitching woo: "Do you know what it is when you can't eat and can't sleep and must drink -- but you can't drink?" Young lady: "Prohibition?")

The thing here is the score, a spring bouquet of Porter standards ("You Do Something to Me," "I Worship You") and others that should be (the jaunty, witty "You've Got That Thing" and the maddeningly catchy "Let's Step Out"). The first act closes with one of Porter's finest and most underrated ballads, the soulful "You Don't Know Paree."

As was always the case, the crossbreeding of Porter and Paris yields a harvest of double entendres, here delivered with brio by a pair of standout performers. Playing a buyer for department stores on the hunt for lowdown thrills, Kristi Cates earns plenty of laughs, especially in "Where Would You Get Your Coat?," noting that without plenty of love in the animal world, ladies of fashion would be bereft. (Or, as she puts it, "If the dear little beaver/were a birth control believer/Where would you get your coat?"). She also lends her dynamic delivery to "The Tale of the Oyster," which, provocatively, tracks the progress of a social-climbing bivalve down the gullet of a Manhattan socialite. As a man-hungry cabaret performer, Ashley Blanchet applies an extra layer of sass to "Find Me a Primitive Man" ("Someone with vigor and vim/I don't mean a man who belongs to a club/But the kind that has a club that belongs to him") and "I'm Unlucky at Gambling," set to a syncopated beat worthy of Irving Berlin.

Of course, Mufti productions are always a tad under-rehearsed -- the cast only gets forty hours of prep time -- so a certain hesitancy makes itself known from time to time, despite Hans Friedrichs' generally breezy direction. And you practically need a scorecard to keep tabs on the various romances that bloom and wither between the numbers. But the mostly young cast is game, Trent Kidd's dance routines add some pizzazz, and there are some amusing turns by Wade McCollum as a hotel manager weary of herding Americans, Sam Balzac as a waiter who turns up in one boîte after another, and Karen Murphy as Looloo's tiaraed mother, who laments her fate in a little something called "The Queen of Terre Haute."

Fifty Million Frenchmen is billed as "a musical tour of Paris," so the projection designer, Chelsie McPhilimy, has appropriately supplied some evocative vintage black-and-white footage of the city as well as hand-colored picture postcard views of the Hôtel Claridge, the Longchamps racecourse, and the Moulin Rouge, among provides. (She also provides some clever animations, including a view of a bus in motion, when Peter becomes a tour guide.) Reza Behjar's solid, sensible lighting design strikes the right tone.

A must for Porter fans and students of vintage musicals, Fifty Million Frenchmen has -- thanks to the casual format -- its occasionally ragged moments, but the running time simply flies by. If you're looking for a hit of sophisticated frivolity, take this tour.--David Barbour


(1 October 2019)

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