REVIEWS: Fifty Million Frenchmen

Gay Paree, A La Porter December 8, 2001
Reviewed by Donald Lyons

The American musical comedy of the 1920s (and even some of the 1930s) characteristically was set in Paris or on a dude ranch.

No one was better at getting the allure of Paris than Cole Porter. After writing songs for The Greenwich Village Follies of 1924, Porter put his hand to Paris in 1928 and Fifty Million Frenchmen in 1929.

It’s the latter show that the Musicals Tonight concert revival series is now offering.

The book involves a bunch of young Americans in Paris in various embarrassments and entanglements.

The romantic leads, crooned pleasantly by Julian Rebolledo and Susan Owen, mainly sing the joys and sorrows of young love in "I Worship You," "You Do Something to Me," and "I’m in Love."

Then there are the comic second bananas who have sprightly, funny numbers: The male, Kilty Reidy, has a saucy "You’ve Got That Thing"; the female, Garrett Long, delivers "Please Don’t Make Me Be Good" and "My Boy Friend Back Home"; together they ask, "Why Shouldn’t I Have You?"

There’s delightfully saucy gal tourists sung by a superb Amy Goldberger who demands, "Find Me a Primitive Man," and tells "The Tale of the Oyster." And Long, the romantic lead, had a brittle "Unlucky in Love." The City of Light is not forgotten. The company as a whole has hymns to the city, like "Do You Want to See Paris?", "Paree, What Did You Do to Me?" and "You Don’t Know Paree."

While this concert version of Fifty Million Frenchmen is generally winning, one wonders why all the women are dressed for a funeral while the men are decked out in collegiate togs. The inept direction leaves characters standing awkwardly around. But those tunes!

Fifty Million Frenchmen in Concert
Back Stage December 21, 2001
Reviewed by Karl Levett

When this musical with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and book by Herbert Fields opened in November 1929 (just after the Wall Street crash), it was struggling. Irving Berlin took out a full-page ad stating "…One of the best collections of song numbers I have listened to. It’s worth the price of admission to hear Cole Porter’s lyrics." In this concert version directed by Thomas Mills, part of Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight Series, it can be seen that Irving’s judgment is right on the money. There are 25 songs, many of which are spring-fresh and youthfully sweet -- plus Porter’s added touch of the tart. The best known are "You Do Something to Me" and "You’ve Got That Thing," but there are several other gems here: three witty comedy songs, and two lovely ballads saluting Paris, "Paree, What You Did You Do to Me" (sung as a quartet) and "You Don’t Know Paree." The all-too-brief chorus numbers also have a brightness way beyond the ordinary. The opening number, "A Toast To Volstead," cleverly satirizes Prohibition, while "At Longchamps Today" bears a striking resemblance to the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady -- and was written just 27 years earlier.

The ragged book by Herbert Fields and adapted here by Mel Miller is something else entirely. Supposedly, it’s a story of a wealthy playboy, Peter Forbes (Julian Rebolledo), who falls for fresh-from-Terre Haute Looloo Carroll (Susan Owen) and then, as the result of a bet, finds he must woo her without funds. This paper-thin story-line keeps getting sidetracked by a second romance between Michael (Kilty Reidy) and Joyce (Garrett Long), plus the search through Paris of Violet (Amy Goldberger), who hopes to "Find Me a Primitive Man." The mix becomes a disjointed revue parodying American in Paris.

While Long does well with her "My Boy Friend Back Home," none of the principles can quite command the stage as this first-class musical material demands. The attractive ensemble, however, does breathe life into their every number, showing Cole Porter’s irreverent spirit is alive and well, thanks to this Musicals Tonight investigation.

He’s right: They can’t be wrong! Fifty Million Frenchmen
Off-Off Broadway December 2001
Reviewed by Doug DeVita

No other composer/lyricist defines the swank sophistication of the Broadway musical of the 1930s better than Cole Porter. His string of hits that spanned the years between 1929 and '39 began with Fifty Million Frenchmen, which opened barely a month after the stock market crash and ran for approximately seven months.

Fifty Million Frenchmen is a silly soufflé of a show, Herbert Field’s book a typical late '20s hodgepodge that uses Paris as the backdrop a standard "boy-meets-loses-and-gets-girl" story. But Porter’s score, which includes "You Do Something To Me," is a marvelous example of the genius that was to pour forth from the composer almost unceasingly for the next decade. There are charm songs and novelty songs, and of course several achingly beautiful ballads, that all display the dexterous ingenuity with both music and lyrics that made Porter great. And with the utmost simplicity, Thomas Mills and Musicals Tonight brought both Porter and his beloved "La Ville Lumiere" back to bubbly life in their concert version of the show, easily their best entry to date.

Everything moved with grace and precision, the performances of the cast were uniformly delightful (more on them later), and the whole affair sparkled like a vintage Moet. Mills, always creative in minimizing the books-in-hand approach (an unfortunately necessary evil in these productions), outdid himself with this one, in one instance using them as scenic devices to conjure up images of famous Parisian landmarks. He was ably supported by Barbara Anselmi’s impeccable musical direction, and a physical production that invoked the time and place of the musical as well as the growing sophistication of Musicals Tonight as a producing entity. (Stan Pearlman utilized colorful placards as set pieces and props, the black-and-white costumes were courtesy of the TDF Costume Collection, and the pure-white lighting was provided by stage manager Joshua Dunn.)

And then there was the cast! As an ensemble, they were a giddily intoxicating force, as individuals, from the largest to the smallest role no detail was overlooked in the creation of lovable memorable characters. Together and apart, Susan Owen, and Julian Rebolledo were deftly appealing as Looloo and Peter, the on again/off again lovers; Celia Tackaberry was grand good fun as a Midwestern dowager in search of a titled husband for her daughter; and Amy Goldberger was a show-stopping, scene-stealing pleasure as a brassy, bored American dame. But the top honors went to Garrett Long, a last-minute replacement as Joyce, Looloo’s wisecracking best friend. Fresh from a critically lauded turn in The Spitfire Grill, Long fit seamlessly into the ensemble, performing with as much élan as if she had been involved in the show from the very beginning, and her presence, voice, and comic timing displayed an actress in total command of her considerable ability -- she was an absolute joy. (Note Kathleen Marshall: if Donna Murphy is unavailable to recreate her role in the forthcoming revival of Wonderful Town, Long is your girl!).

With the holiday season looming, there’s hardly anything more cheering than an evening spent with Fifty Million Frenchmen, a gift from Musicals Tonight to a city that needs to laugh, to relax, and to remember that New York, like Paris, also has a tradition of fun, light, and swank sophistication. Thank you! You did (and do) something to (and for) everyone!

Mel’s got a stage, let’s put on a show
The Journal News December, 2001
Reviewed by Jacques le Sourd

Mel Miller’s theatrical operation might be called "Class, on a Shoestring."

For three years now, Miller has been single-handedly presenting (and funding) seldom-seen American musicals with professional casts, in concert versions. It’s called Musicals Tonight and it’s like City Center’s wildly popular Encores! series, with no money.

Sets and costumes are minimal, the actors hold books, and the accompaniment is by Barbara Anselmi on piano. Nobody gets paid more than subway fare, and the ticket price is just $19.

The current production is Cole Porter’s dazzling Fifty Million Frenchmen, a show that ran 254 performances at the Lyric Theatre despite the fact that it opened in 1929, a month after the stock market crash that started the Great Depression.

It came as the summation of Porter’s so-called "Paris period" and helped to cement his image (which was just about true) as a rich bon vivant dividing his time among Paris, Venice and the French Riviera, and writing exquisite ditties only when he felt like it.

Brooklyn-born theatre types like Moss Hart called Porter a "great amateur," regarding him as not quite a man of the theatre. He was from a prosperous family in Peru, Ind., and he knew how to create a fantasy life for himself in Manhattan -- and just about anywhere else he cared to go.

The book (by Herbert Fields) isn’t the great thing about Fifty Million Frenchmen, but the songs are.

Musicals Tonight gives us enough of the book for the music to make sense in context, but wisely concentrates on that amazing score, even adding some songs that were cut from the final version. The adaptation is by Miller, the direction by Thomas Mills.

So here is "You Do Something to Me," "You’ve Got That Thing," "Find Me a Primative Man," "The Tale of the Oyster," "Paree, What Did You Do To Me?", "I’m Unlucky in Love," and "You Don’t Know Paree." Just for starters.

Some of these songs lived on for decades in the days when singers in piano bars were not rarities, but today we have not only Bobby Short at the Carlyle to remind us, occasionally, of how luscious they could be on their own.

Musicals Tonight restores the songs to their rightful place in a musical’s score, and shows how brilliantly they could work as pieces of a whole. This kind of smooth, elegant musical writing is all but gone today.

Among those singing the songs in character here are Garrett Long, who made a promising New York debut a couple of months ago in The Spitfire Grill at Playwrights Horizons, as Joyce.

Julian Rebolledo plays Peter Forbes, a wealthy playboy who wants to be loved for himself, who temporarily mislays his wallet (in the days before credit cards), and poses as a poor man taking odd jobs around Paris for a month.

Peter is in love with Looloo (Susan Owen), who is in Paris staying at the Ritz Hotel, accompanied by her rich family from -- you guessed it -- Indiana. They, of course, have their eye on a grand duke to marry their daughter.

One of the discoveries of this production is "The Queen of Terre Haute," a song dropped from the original New York run. It’s sung with great style by Celia Tackaberry as Mrs. Carroll, Looloo’s mother.

"For instead of being famous," she sings, "I’m only an ignoramus, from a small Middle Western town."

With that, of course, Porter was making direct fun of himself. (Interestingly, Porter never tried to put any distance between him and his native Indiana, unlike Hart who turned his back on Brooklyn forever.)

Long sings a very tender song called "My Boy Friend Back Home," which had only a brief stay in the original production. Jeff Wells, as Baxter, has a remarkably affecting moment late in the show with "You Don’t Know Paree."

And the best gag song in the show, "The Tale of the Oyster," is sung by Amy Goldberger as Violet. This tune, about a little oyster who is consumed and then thrown up by a grandee named Mrs. Hoggenheimer, is a wonderful story. At its end, the oyster says, "I’ve had a taste of society, and society has had a taste of me."

What seems downright bizarre to us is that the song was greeted with shock and vehement disgust by the drama critics of the day, who objected to Porter’s "zoo fixations." The Song was quickly cut from the show. Fortunately, Kaye Ballard brought it back 25 years later, and it’s part of Short’s regular repertoire.

We have Miller to thank for putting it back in the show, and giving us a cornucopia of witty, sophisticated and irreplaceable Cole Porter tunes.

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