Cole Porter is being celebrated with three concert-style productions of his musicals by the York Theatre Company in its Musicals in Mufti Series. The first in the trio is “Fifty Million Frenchmen” (September 28-October 6), originally on Broadway in 1929, with music and lyrics by Porter and book by Herbert Fields. This reduced version in revival is the 1991 adaptation by Tommy Krasker and Evans Haile.
The book is absurdly silly, but the songs have the witty touch Porter has been known for, the most familiar being “You Do Something to Me.” As usual, the York has assembled a cast capable of doing justice to the musical numbers and extracting whatever possible from the absurd plot involving American tourists in Paris, romance, a bet, a planned party, financial problems and whatever can be crowded into the potpourri.
The show is pared down to a cast of 11, two pianos and a banjo. Pared down is an understatement. Charles Wright, in his very helpful program background article writes: “‘Frenchmen’ was a gargantuan production, capitalized at more than a quarter of a million dollars (meg-abucks for Broadway at the time). The ensemble consisted of 75 singers and dancers (not counting any of the 23 speaking parts), plus specialty acts that had little if anything to do with the musical’s zany plot.”
What helps considerably to set the mood is the nice idea of projecting background scenes of Paris as the show moves along, thanks to scenic consultant James Morgan and production designer Chelsie McPhilimy.
The plot involves Peter Forbes (Andy Kelso) falling for visiting American Looloo Carroll (Evy Ortiz) and betting his friend Billy Baxter (Cole Burden) that he can get her to agree to marry him within a month. Looloo is in Paris with her tourist parents, Gladys and Emmitt Carroll (Karen Murphy and Ray DeMattis). Looloo’s mother has other ideas than a marriage to Peter—a marriage to a count. But, pun intended, don’t count Peter out. There are other romances in the works—Billy and Violet Hildegarde (Kristy Cates) and Michael Cummins (David Michael Bevis) and the outspoken Joyce Wheeler (Madeline Trumble.)
The pleasure in this staging lies in the rendition of the songs. Peter and Looloo sing “You Do Something to Me.” Looloo solos with “I’m in Love” and Peter sings “You Don’t Know Paree.” Gladys, Looloo’s mom, grabs her own spotlight effectively singing “The Queen of Terre Haute.” Violet amuses singing Porter’s very clever “The Tale of the Oyster.” The waiter (Sam Balzac) gets a solo, “Somebody’s Going to Throw a Big Party,” and he and Louis Pernasse (Wade McCollum), the haughty hotel manager, team with “It Isn’t Done.” There are more characters and many more numbers, including a turn by May De Vere (Ashley Blancher), a Parisian singer who puts pizzazz into “I’m Unlucky at Gambling.”
“Fifty Million Frenchmen” has an odd history. In 1931 Warner Brothers turned it into a film, but not with the music, and in 1934 there was a short film with the music. The York once again has done a service by bringing fresh attention to Porter’s work. The next two Porter salutes in the Musicals in Mufti series are “The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through The Eyes of Cole Porter (October 12-20) and “Panama Hattie” (October 28-November 3). At the York Theatre at Saint Peter's, 619 Lexington Avenue (at 54th Street). Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed September 30, 2019.