Review: The York Serves Up Vintage Cole Porter With FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMEN

A frothy concoction, served up with charm.

By: Oct. 05, 2019

Say what you will about ANYTHING GOES and KISS, ME KATE, but for this musical theatre lover, there's no finer Cole Porter score than the one he whipped up for the 1929 hit, Fifty Million Frenchmen.

Fifty Million Frenchmen
David Michael Bevis, Ashley Blanchet, Madeline Trumble,
Andy Kelso, Ray DeMattis and Karen Murphy.
(Photo: Ben Strothmann)

More of a collection of songs than an integrated exploration of plot and characters (though to be fair, a couple do have a passing relationship to what's going on in Herbert Fields' punch-line laden book), FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMEN's score is of the ilk that created Porter's legendary Broadway status as an impish erudite who wasn't above flashing inside jokes about his society pals that would fly over the heads of 90% of the crowd.

But then, this was an era when musical comedies, aside from the hit songs they produced ("You Do Something To Me" and "You've Got That Thing" were the popular takeaways from this one), were considered so dispensable that complete copies of their scripts and scores were rarely published, or even retained.

That's why it caused so much excitement around the musical theatre world when, in 1988, a huge stash of long-forgotten scripts and scores were found in a Warner Brothers warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. While nobody's demanding a full-scale Broadway revival of the show, the York Theatre Company's very enjoyable Musicals in Mufti concert production of FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMEN is the fifth such Manhattan mounting this reviewer has seen in less than thirty years.

Director Hans Friedrichs works off a 1991 text assembled by Tommy Krasker and Evans Haile, that streamlines the show to suit a small ensemble, eliminates the jokes based on ethnic slurs and chooses a song list out of the various tunes that were added and subtracted during the original production's run.

Haile also serves as music director, playing one of two onstage pianos. David Hancock Turner is at the other keyboard and Dan Erben joins them at piano.

Andy Kelso plays the role originated by William Gaxton, that of a wealthy American vacationing in Paris who bets his friend that within a month he can get engaged to the mystery girl he's fallen in love with at first sight without using his money or connections. (Yes, in 1929 musicals guys would bet that they could get a girl to marry him, not sleep with him.) Our hero gets a job as a guide at the American Express center, which helps introduce comic complications with a variety of ugly Americans.

A highlight of Porter's score, and it actually does concern the plot, is a clever extended musical sequence titled "Do You Want To See Paris?" where the guide flippantly describes the city's major attractions to fun-seeking tourists ("That building there, upon the right, is the famous Hotel Claridge. / It's where the ladies go at night when they get fed up with marriage.") The Americans respond with musical quotes from recent Broadway hits while one exclaims "I'll buy it!" after seeing each historic landmark.

But Kelso's best moment comes when he poignantly closes the first act with the artful ballad, "You Don't Know Paree," with a lyric that can apply to nearly any city where tourists flock to the popular sights without experiencing the real soul of the town.

Fifty Million Frenchmen
David Michael Bevis and Madeline Trumble
(Photo: Ben Strothmann)

Kristy Cates flashes great comic flair as a jaded American who comes to Paris wishing to be insulted, nailing gags about French post cards and censored copies of "Ulysses," and embracing the raciness of Porter's "Where Would You Get Your Coat?," a list song in praise of bestial mating habits. ("If the dear little beaver / Were a birth control believer / Where would you get your coat?") She also scores with one of Porter's most infamous songs, "The Tale of The Oyster," based on the real-life experience of a nauseous upper-cruster, which was removed from the musical when too many complained it was in bad taste.

Ashley Blanchet is great fun as a cabaret singer who happens to be in town, belting out the sexy "Find Me A Primitive Man" and the pseudo-blues "I'm Unlucky At Gambling."

Choreographer Trent Kidd contributes a snazzy tap routine delivered with panache by David Michael Bevis and Madeline Trumble for the jaunty "You've Got That Thing," and another for Trumble and Evy Ortiz with "Let's Step Out."

Back in 1929, the sidecar was the drink of choice among cocktailing Parisians. Fifty Million Frenchmen is a frothier concoction, served up with charm at the York.


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