By Ron Fassler
When it was first produced on Broadway in 1929, Cole Porter and Herbert Fields’s Fifty Million Frenchman didn’t boast a cast near that number, though it did have one hundred people in it- – which by today’s standards might as well be fifty million. It also opened two months into the Great Depression that caused the permanent closing of dozens of Broadway theaters, many of which were torn down and never replaced. In spite of that, Fifty Million Frenchman ran over a year; a very long (and profitable run) for that time. What did the show have that so entertained audiences? And after ninety years, does it still have what it takes? Well, it’s got those songs (and the less said about the so-called plot, the better).
God bless “Musicals in Mufti,” the long-running series at the York Theatre on the East Side, which is taking on a trio of Porter musicals in the month of October, beginning with Fifty Million Frenchmen, which opened last night and runs through October 6th for eleven performances only. On October 12th, an obscure 1965 revue with the alluring title The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter will be seen, followed by Panama Hattie (opening on October 26th) which premiered on Broadway in 1940 and was the fourth collaboration of Porter and Ethel Merman. And what is “in mufti?” I do feel compelled to explain every time a review is written because it’s such an obscure term that mufti means “in street clothes, without the trappings of a full production,” which is exactly how the York has been bringing us dozens of musicals (on tight budgets) over the last quarter of a century.
In 1991, the year of the Cole Porter centenary, Tommy Krasker and Evans Haile (who is also Executive Director of the York Theatre), presented a version of Fifty Million Frenchman that they crafted out of what was always thought to have been lost materials. Discovered in a Warner Brothers warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey was a trove of sheet music and librettos of dozens of shows in 80 cartons. Piecing together Fifty Million Frenchman for a late 20th century-budgeted production, Krasker and Haile figured out a way to get such a behemoth down to a manageable size by trimming a good deal and replacing some songs with other Porter tunes that were cut from the original. Produced as a CD (and conducted by Haile), it was cited by USA Today as “Best Recording of the Year.”
All that to say that what is on display on the small stage at the York is that rare opportunity to see one of these old-fashioned shows that one might think at first are dinosaurs (and one mightn’t be all that wrong). The charm factor is often the key to unlocking what makes these musicals worth revisiting, and under Hans Friedrichs’ direction, and relying upon a game cast, Fifty Million Frenchmen is delightful, delicious and de-lovely (though that Porter song was written for Red Hot and Blue in 1946).
Under Evans Haile’s musical direction, the three-piece band consists of an additional piano, played by David Hancock Turner and a banjo strummed by Dan Erben. They make for a grand trio and the overture, accompanied by a clever film title sequence kicks the evening off to a terrific start. Perhaps the most famous Porter song to come out of the show is “You Do Something to Me” with the oft-quoted lyric “do do that voodoo that you do so well.” And if it’s those kinds of Porter-esque rhymes that you are seeking, then look no further. Since many of these songs were not recorded by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra in their heyday, audiences will mostly be unfamiliar with the lot. But the songs are filled with surprises, such as one that was deemed so racy it eventually got cut from the original production during its run. The title is “I’m Unlucky at Gambling” and one of the lyrics that raised an eyebrow for me was:
“The croupier impressed me as rather slow.
I said I liked John Gilbert a lot, don’t you?
I said I liked John Gilbert a lot, don’t you?
He didn’t answer but when the show was through
I realized that he liked John Gilbert too.”
And in this production, Ashley Blanchet sold it in just the right sly manner. Also, highly enjoyable performances came from Andy Kelso in the lead ingenue role of Peter, Kristy Cates as Violet, a slinky-voiced chanteuse, and Sam Balzac, very funny playing a variety of different waiters (or were they all the same guy)? It’s a fine ensemble and considering these Mufti musicals get precious little rehearsal time, it makes the accomplishments of the actors all the more impressive.
Photos: Ben Strothmann
Fifty Million Frenchmen. Through October 6, 2019 at The York Theatre Company (in St. Peter’s Church, 619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street). www.yorktheatre.org