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Theatre in Review: Money Talks (Davenport Theatre)

Ralph Byers, George Merrick, Brennan Cadlwell, Sandra DeNise. Photo: Jeremy Daniels

The title of this new musical is not a metaphor. In the opening number, "I'm Money," George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin -- familiar faces on one-, five-, ten-, and hundred-dollar bills -- appear to lament their association with filthy lucre. As Lincoln notes, "I'm a tunnel, I'm a center, I'm insurance, I'm a car/But my photo on the five is why I'm famouser by far." (Yes, "famouser;" we're not talking Lin-Manuel Miranda here.) It does, however, establish the show's extremely peculiar conceit: The action follows Franklin -- the living embodiment of a hundred-dollar bill -- as he (or it) is passed around from hand to hand. It is surely the first musical in the history of theatre in which the protagonist is a banknote. If that doesn't make sense -- well, coherence isn't a big priority at Money Talks.

Think of it as the hard-currency version of La Ronde, a series of episodes designed to comment on the corruption and greed of today's America. What follows, however, is so lame it hurts. Franklin is first given by a financier to a stripper in a gentlemen's club. "I'm a hedge fund manager," he says, by way of introduction. "You need a fund to buy hedges?" she replies. A line or two later, she says, "I was joking." That's good, because otherwise how else would we have known?

Anyway, the stripper who -- wouldn't you know -- has a heart of gold, brings Franklin home, where her good-for-nothing spouse steals it in order to finance his participation in a Las Vegas poker tournament. Peter Kellogg's book -- which often has a devil-may-care disregard for reality -- posits that a sponger, with no available funds, could parlay a single C-note into airfare, hotel, and betting money. Anyway, the winning pot (which includes Franklin) is won by a blonde bombshell -- she has a number called, yes, "Dumb Blonde" -- who lives with her elderly millionaire husband in California. Back home, she summons her Hispanic gardener and announces, "You have to fix this bush!" When that doesn't get a laugh, an actor emerges from the wings dressed as.....a bush. The lady of the house is upset because the gardener has -- as per previous instructions -- styled the six-foot-tall piece of greenery to look like an elephant: "My husband doesn't want our neighbors to think that we're Republicans." The gardener inquires, "You are not?" "Of course we are," she replies. "But in LA you have to be seen as a liberal."

Need I go on? There's plenty more where that came from: the wacky Italian restaurant owner ("Food is the one great panacea/And the food you get here-mamma mia!"); the hairdresser whose mincing manner and French accent are all a ruse for his wealthy customers ("And now that I swish/I can charge what I wish"); the evangelical adoption agency representative, who enjoys turning down gay couples, and her grasping pastor, who leads a gospel hymn titled "Give, Give, Give to the Lord." ("Oh the world is a wicked place today/Full of Muslims and Jews and the Gay.") It all leads to Franklin denouncing the general state of things in a limp eleven o'clock number titled "Does Anyone Hear Me Now?" The title is oddly reminiscent of John Adams' big number, "Is Anybody There?", in 1776, a show that I would have spent a couple of Benjamin Franklins to attend in place of seeing Money Talks.

Under the direction of Michael Chase Gosselin, the cast moves as fast as humanly possible through this welter of stale ideas. David Friedman's melodies are frequently pleasant, although, as his program bio indicates, he is much more at home writing inspirational ballads like "Listen to My Heart" and "We Can Be Kind" than anything he does here. I believe that Kellogg's lyrics, as quoted above, speak for themselves.

As Franklin, Ralph Byers has little to do but stand around and watch the others while offering such Franklin-style maxims as "A fool and his money are soon parted" -- a line that, oddly, made me think about the producers of Money Talks. Sandra DeNise brings considerable verve to her gallery of caricatures; if they aren't funny, it's not her fault. She even comes close to making something out of a ballad titled "How Did I Fall So High." She, Brennan Caldwell, and George Merrick all have big voices that should prove useful in other, better, musicals.

Ann Beyersdorfer's set features an arrangement of panels shaped to the outlines of the continental US, which serve as surfaces for Ido Levran's projections of, among other things, money, strip club logos, and New York subway maps. It's a clever concept, but it looks as if it was executed on the cheap. Vanessa Leuck's costumes for the opener -- Revolutionary War-era waistcoats and breeches seemingly made out of currency -- are very clever, but one has the feeling she spent most of her budget on them, leaving her strapped for everything else. Catherine Clark's lighting and Patrick LaChance's sound are both acceptable.

Money Talks is a classic summer silly season offering, the sort of entertainment that leaves theatregoers scratching their heads and wondering how such things manage to get produced. The answer, of course, is contained in the title. -- David Barbour

(24 July 2017)

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