By Stanford Friedman
Five years before Anything Goes, and one month after the stock market crash of 1929, Cole Porter’s Fifty Million Frenchmen arrived on Broadway in full glory, boasting a cast of nearly 100. It ran an impressive 254 performances. In 1991, a significantly scaled down adaptation was performed as part of the celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Porter’s birth. It is this version, whimsical and weird, that can currently be seen, if you hurry, at the York Theatre Company, as their new season of Musicals in Mufti kicks off.
The Mufti series offers lesser-known musicals performed as staged concerts. The actors have all of 40 hours to rehearse and they sing and dance with script in hand. Here, under the direction of Hans Friedrichs, the capable 11-member cast prove game for anything. The musical’s title is a reference to the 1927 Sophie Tucker hit, “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong,” extolling the joys of the City of Light (“In Viva la France they’re full of romance/You’ll find policemen with embroidery on their pants.”), but a better title might have been A Bunch of Americans in Paris, or perhaps Everything Goes. Porter’s 19 tunes sometimes actually relate to the show’s story, but his collaboration with book writer Herbert Fields more often seems like the work of two creative forces whose themes happen to occasionally intersect.
It’s June in Paris, all the locals have left for vacations of their own and the streets are full of Americans trying to fall in love or fall into vice. Enter the social climbing Carroll family, from Terre Haute. There’s papa Emmitt (Ray DeMattis), mama Gladys (Karen Murphy), lovely daughter Looloo (Evy Ortiz), and Looloo’s BFF, Joyce (Madeline Trumble). Hot on their heels is a gaggle of romantically inclined Wall Street types. Peter (Andy Kelso) has it bad for Looloo, Michael (David Michael Bevis) has a thing for Joyce, and Billy will eventually make time with thirsty tourist Violet Hildegarde (Kristy Cates). Before finding happiness, the group stumble their way through various comedic hijinks including a sucker bet, a day at the races, and a bevy of misunderstood intentions.
The musical revolves around Peter but Kelso leads from behind, under pedaling his performance to the point that he gets lost amid the production’s many vivacious moments. Those include a charming tap dance by Bevis and Trumble, and two beautifully rendered comic numbers by Cates: an homage to mating minks entitled “Where Would You Get Your Coat,” and a bivalve morality fable, “The Tale of the Oyster,” (“Down by the sea lived a lonesome oyster/ev’ry day getting sadder and moister”). Also in the mix is Sam Balzac as a hapless waiter, Wade McCollum who serves as an all-knowing narrator and the dynamic Ashley Blanchet as the chanteuse/singing waitress, May DeVere. Her big number, “Find Me a Primitive Man,” could have gone very wrong, but her seductive, self-assured performance lifts her above the most dangerous of dated lyrics (“I could be the personal slave/Of someone just out of a cave.”).
Adding to the evening’s eccentricities, the orchestra consists of two grand pianos, and a banjo. The pianists sound great, though at times come close to drowning out the vocals from the blissfully unamplified performers. Projection Designer Chelsie McPhilimy, meanwhile, successfully transports us, with a backdrop of silent film footage, to a pre-Technicolor Paree.
Fifty Million Frenchmen – Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Herbert Fields, adapted by Tommy Krasker and Evans Haile. Directed by Hans Friedrichs.
WITH: Sam Balzac (Waiter), David Michael Bevis (Michael), Ashley Blanchet (May), Cole Burden (Billy), Kristy Cates (Violet), Ray DeMattis (Emmitt), Andy Kelso (Peter), Wade McCollum (Louis), Karen Murphy (Gladys), Evy Ortiz (Looloo), and Madeline Trumble (Joyce).
Music Direction by Evans Haile; Lighting Designer, Reza Behjat; Projection Designer, Chelsie McPhilimy. Musicals in Mufti at The York Theatre Company, 619 Lexington Avenue, (212) 935-5820, https://yorktheatre.org. Through October 6. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes with one intermission.