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Off Broadway Reviews

Fifty Million Frenchmen

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

We've all lived with integrated musicals for so long, it's hard to really appreciate the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein revolution until you come face to face with a show that openly defies it. For example, Fifty Million Frenchmen, which Ian Marshall Fisher is resuscitating - as much as he's able - at Florence Gould Hall for his second year of Lost Musicals benefit concerts.

The mission of Lost Musicals, a British fixture that predates our own Encores! series by several years, has been to examine musicals by great writers with their books intact. While this is a fascinating historical exercise, and as Marshall Fisher proved last year can unearth some unexpected gems (the Kaufman-MacGrath-Burrows book for Silk Stockings remains hilarious), it's not always successful quite the way Marshall Fisher - or other musical lovers - might hope.

What Herbert Fields's libretto for Fifty Million Frenchmen unequivocally delivers is a glimpse of what passed for Broadway musical comedy in 1929. The story, about a group of well-to-do Americans having a series of society-tweaking adventures in Paris, is hardly memorable literature. It's essentially an excuse for wisecracks, comedy spots, and some classic Cole Porter compositions. "You Do Something To Me," "You've Got That Thing," and "You Don't Know Paree" are among the glittering songs gloriously gracing this wafer-thin barely-story.

The central plot is theoretically about a playboy named Peter Forbes (Edward Watts), who falls for a girl named Looloo Carroll (Michelle K. Nicklas), but bets his traveling companions he can woo her, win her, and wed her without the help of his fortune. The show follows Peter through a series of zany occupations and situations (he bet on the winner at the race track - oh no, he tore up his ticket!, and so on) until an arbitrary end point, which mainly serves as an excuse for the full cast to again sing the evening's bigger hits.

As laughable, even unthinkable, as all this is today, it still works on the most basic of levels. By the numbers as the book is, with complications, resolutions, and characterizations that could have been drawn from a hat, Fields's writing crackles with flair; it's never less than amusing, and is often quite a bit funnier. Sure, the comedy is of the forgettable, joke-pause-joke-pause variety, but as "tired businessman" as it might be, it's in no way worse than what passes for writing in the likes of Mamma Mia!: This is at least intelligent, urbane escapism, requiring neither frequent use of your brain nor kicking it to the curb for three hours.

In keeping with the era's dependence on novelty, Marshall Fisher has populated some key minor roles with juicy comic talents: The most satisfying stretch of the evening finds Mary Ellen Ashley, K.T. Sullivan, and Christine Pedi elegantly ripping up the joint with "The Queen of Terre Haute," "The Tales of the Oyster," and "My Boyfriend Back Home" respectively, for a rapidly escalating exercise in musical-comedy joy. Sullivan is a riot throughout, masterfully unleashing some of Fields's nippiest zingers; Sondra Lee makes a huge impression in the tiny role of a largely crabby woman. What do any of these women's characters contribute to the plot? I doubt even Fields could tell you.

Anyway, much of that's handled by Watts and Nicklas, who are classically attractive, highly likable, impeccably trained vocally, and too bland to merit additional attention. They, like so much else in Fifty Million Frenchmen, are functional, correctly directed by Marshall Fisher simply to get the show from joke to song and back again until it's time to call it quits. In other words, solid '20s thinking, though it's too bad it can't stretch to the size of the ensemble (the full company is 17 people) or orchestra (accompaniment is piano only, but Mark Mitchell sounds fine); for those bells and whistles, you'll have to investigate Encores!, though shows like this one were all but disqualified the day they programmed Follies.

Plus, at Encores!, you don't get full books: Marshall Fisher is allowing us the opportunity to examine this show more or less as its authors intended it. While we may occasionally have cause to lament that frivolous entertainments of this specific sort are no longer possible, Fifty Million Frenchmen's bafflingly heavy reliance on a do-nothing second-banana dancing couple (the blameless Katie Adams and Sean McKnight) and - even worse - its occasional digressions into humor at the expense of Jews prove how far we've really come.

Fifty Million Frenchmen
Florence Gould Hall, Alliance Fran├žaise, 55 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues
Sun, 09/24/06
Fri, 09/29/06
Sun, 10/08/06
All performances are at 6:30pm.
Tickets online at Ticketmaster

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