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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Iolanthe (New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players)


By Harry Forbes

New York’s longest running professional Gilbert & Sullivan company returned to the Kaye Playhouse for its 45th season with a work artistic director Albert Bergeret names as his personal favorite, the 1882  “Iolanthe.” 

His affection for the piece was evident in his conducting, and as usual with NYGASP, the performance was musically top-notch. Bergeret uses singers who are among the very best in town. 

The leads were aptly cast. James Mills made an impeccable Lord Chancellor, and handled the fiendish Nightmare Song with crisp articulation (though the four partial “encores” were more than a tad excessive). Angela Christine Smith was an imperious Queen of the Fairies with impressively sonorous low notes. Matthew Wages and Cameron Smith as the twittish Lords Mountararat and Tolloller respectively were very funny in their Wilde-like exchanges about who most deserved the hand of shepherdess Phyllis (Laurelyn Watson Chase in her final performance as NYGASP’s leading soprano), and Wages offered an especially resonant “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves.” 

That showstopper came soon after David Wannen’s well-received rendering of Private Willis' solo, again very richly sung. 

Amy Maude Helfer made a moving Iolanthe, the titular fairy exiled for marrying a mortal (the Lord Chancellor) years earlier, and David Macaluso was solid as her shepherd son Strephon, a fairy (down to his waist). 

The ensemble was also strong, including the balletic fairies and the imperious peers who made an impressive entrance down the right aisle in their opening, “Loudly Let the Trumpet Bray.” The first act finale with the peers and the fairies singing in counterpoint is arguably the finest in the G&S canon, and it was excitingly performed here. 


Besides conducting with his customary authority in the pit, his forces satisfyingly filling the warm acoustic of the Kaye, Bergeret directed a mostly traditional performance. My own small carp is that a bit too much slapstick in the staging occasionally undermines the overall classy approach. David Auxier served as co-director and choreographer.

Jack Garver’s sets lighted by Benjamin Weill -- an Arcadian landscape in Act 1, and the Palace Yard, Westminster in Act 2 -- and Gail J. Wofford’s costumes, including the peer’s colorful ceremonial robes, were nicely executed. Scenically, I enjoyed the waterfall effect in the first act. 

The house was full and the audience highly enthusiastic. You can catch a glimpse of the production here on YouTube

I look forward to the company's forthcoming productions of “The Mikado” (12/27-30 & 1/4-5) and “The Gondoliers” (4/18-19).

(The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, E. 68th Street between Park and Lexington avenues near Lexington); www.nygasp.org or 212-772-4448; Oct. 26-27 only)

Photos: William Reynolds

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Panama Hattie (The York Theatre Company ‘Musicals in Mufti’)


By Harry Forbes

Cole Porter’s 1940 hit which, by all accounts, featured Ethel Merman in peak form is, truth to tell, not one of the great man’s best scores. But as escapist entertainment in that tense period leading up to U.S. entry into World War II, it seems to have fit the bill, especially with sumptuous costumes by Rauol Pène du Bois, choreography by Robert Alton, and a huge cast. The serviceable, fitfully amusing, book was by Herbert Fields and B.G. DeSylva.

Shorn of the spare-no-expense trappings and its high-powered leading lady, the property’s shortcomings are apparent, as was evident when Musicals Tonight resurrected the piece in 2010 in a similarly barebones production. The current Musicals in Mufti presentation has an edge with the casting of dynamic Klea Blackhurst, who has made a specialty of channeling Merman. Though technically older than she should be for the role (Merman was only 32), Blackhurst pulls it off bringing plenty of pizzazz to the part, socks over the songs in leading lady fashion, registers as effortlessly likable, and knows how to play the heart-of-gold, lower-class dame to a tee. She doesn’t try to impersonate Merman, but her voice has the requisite ping.

Hattie’s a plain talking, vulgar-dressing chanteuse in a dive in the titular canal zone. She needs a touch of class now that her fiance Nick (solid Stephen Bogardus), a divorced State Department guy with an important position in the strategically important control tower, is bringing eight-year-old daughter Geraldine (pint-sized marvel Kylie Kuioka), whom he hasn’t seen since she was a baby, to live with them. Sure enough, the girl finds Hattie’s vulgar fashions irrepressibly funny, and the two get off to a rocky start. But Hattie eventually wins over the girl, and the two bond in the hit song, “Let’s Be Buddies.” But her troubles are far from over, as snobby rich girl Leila (Casey Shuler who nails the unlikable schemer) is determined to scuttle Hattie’s engagement to Nick. 

Three womanizing sailors (Jay Aubrey Jones, Garen McRoberts, and Joe Veale, all amusing) are on hand for comic relief with burlesque humor, and, along with Hattie, successfully foil a spy caper. 

Hattie’s man-hungry friend Florrie (Anita Welch) sets her cap on Gerry’s uptight but lovable English butler/chaperone (Simon Jones). These were the parts originally taken by Betty Hutton and Arthur Treacher.

There are a handful of Porter chestnuts throughout the mostly B-level score, including Hattie’s “I’ve Still Got My Health,” “I’m Throwing a Ball Tonight” (a favorite of the late Bobby Short), “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please,” and “My Mother Would Love You.” There was no full cast LP, but Merman recorded four of the songs. MGM later made a film version with Ann Sothern in Merman’s role, and Broadway’s Rags Ragland recreating his sailor role, but as was so typical of Hollywood at the time, most of the score was jettisoned.

As indicated, Blackhurst is surrounded by strong cast. Welch performs her second-banana role most enjoyably, though can’t really elevate her two admittedly not-so-hot numbers, “Fresh as a Daisy!” and “All I’ve Got to Get Now is My Man.” Kuioka, off-book all evening, is quite remarkable. Jones, fresh from the “Downton Abbey” movie and still sporting his King George V beard, is luxury casting, and plays his stuffy but lovable role to perfection. Gordon Stanley has a convincing turn as Nick’s boss who initially gets the wrong idea about Hattie. Jones is particularly good in the Ragland role.

Michael Montel, veteran of numerous Muftis, directs with knowledgeable style. Trent Kidd has provided some brief but bright choreography.

Deniz Cordell on piano and David White on bass provide the lively accompaniment. 

(Theater at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue, 54th St. East of Lexington; www.yorktheatre.org or 212-935-5820; through November 3)

Pictured (left to right): Lael Van Keuren, David Green, Zuri Washington, Simon Jones,
Anita Welch, Klea Blackhurst, Kylie Kuioka, Stephen Bogardus, Joe Veale,
Garen McRoberts, Jay Aubrey Jones, Casey Shuler.
Photo Credit: Russ Rowland.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Sound Inside (Studio 54)


By Harry Forbes

Mary-Louise Parker is truly outstanding as Bella, a troubled Yale English professor, who develops an unlikely friendship with Christopher, a promising if prickly student (wonderfully played by Will Hochman in his Broadway debut). 

The less one knows of the action of Adam Rapp’s riveting play, the better, but it’s no spoiler to reveal that we learn early on that Bella’s job at the university is basically her whole life, she has an uneventful love life, and that she has been diagnosed with cancer. She published a novel 17 years earlier, as well as a couple of slender volumes of short stories. But there’s been no literary follow-up since. Budding novelist Christopher shows up one day at her office without the requisite  appointment, and despite his blunt manner, and his rather alarming diatribe against the evils of email and Twitter, Bella is intrigued. After a few such visits, she invites him to dinner. 

In short order, Christopher revitalizes her on both the literary and interpersonal fronts, and he begins to share with her the compelling narrative of his novel-in-progress, inevitably charming her with his sincere appreciation of both her class and her novel which he has tracked down.  But the play is constantly surprising, not in any way playing out along predictable lines.

It was commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater and premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last year. 

The most unusual aspect of the physical production is that it is played on a mostly darkened stage, though sections are illuminated by pools of light as the action demands. Lighting designer Heather Gilbert, in tandem with scenic designer Alexander Woodward, masterfully visualize the emotional texture of the piece which over the course of its 90 intermission-less minutes, and manages, despite its sparseness, to encompass Bella’s office, apartment, a restaurant, and other locales. 

Daniel Kluger’s music and sound, and Aaron Rhyne’s projections contribute mightily to sustaining a suspenseful mood

Rapp has constructed the piece so cleverly, he keeps you guessing about what will happen next, and there are several unexpected twists along the way. Bella’s narrative -- a marathon role for Parker -- is written with much the same literary precision that characterizes that of the writers both Bella and Christopher admire. The play begins with a tremendously long monologue for Bella in which she relates her backstory, but in truth, apart from the scenes with Christopher, the entire play might be seen as one big monologue, and a most fascinating one at that. 

David Cromer directs with nuanced sensitivity and under his expert guidance, neither performer makes a false move.

The title derives from a writing exercise Bella gives her students, but I’ll say no more. This is the kind of play that, like the best of them, keeps you thinking about it long after the proverbial curtain falls. 

(Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com; through January 12)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Rose Tattoo (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

Tennesse Williams’ Tony Award-winning 1951 play hasn’t been seen on Broadway since the 1995 revival with Mercedes Ruehl and Anthony LaPaglia at Circle-in-the-Square, so it’s been overdue for another mounting. I’m happy to report that Roundabout’ s production, imaginatively directed by Trip Cullman, is a very worthy one, both moving and bracing.

The production began life at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2016.

The play’s not as well known as the other Williams chestnuts, and the 1955 Anna Magnani-Burt Lancaster film, once a television staple, doesn’t get much airplay these days, so it comes with an inherent freshness. 

The setting is somewhere on the Gulf Coast circa 1950. Serafina (Marisa Tomei) is a devoutly religious dressmaker smitten with her truck driver husband Rosario who drives a banana truck (but smuggles illegal goods beneath the bananas). Serafina likes to tell anyone who will listen that on the night her young daughter Rosa (Ella Rubin) was conceived, Rosario’s rose tattoo magically appeared on her breast for a few miraculous moments, and she knew she was pregnant. And now she's expecting another child.

She longs for her husband’s return (as this is the last time he’ll risk carting the contraband), but before long, the neighborhood women -- who throughout the production sing Italian folk songs and serve as something of a Greek chorus -- gather ominously to impart the news that he has been killed. Hysterical with grief, she is transformed into a sorrowful widow with his ashes prominently on display. Three years pass. Nearly everyone else seems to know Rosario had been cheating on her with a blonde blackjack dealer named Estelle (Tina Benko), but Serafina won’t hear a word of it. She becomes overprotective of Rosa, now 15 and about to graduate, and keeps her locked up in her room. But Rosa has nonetheless managed to meet a shy, sweet sailor (Burke Swanson) whom Serafina makes swear in front of her shrine to the Blessed Virgin that he’ll respect Rosa’s honor. 

This first act is, as you might expect, full of highly-charged drama and the tragedy of Serafina’s unexpected widowhood. But in the second, truck driver Alvaro (Emun Elliott) with, as Serafina puts it, her husband’s body but the face of a clown, barges into her home after a comically violent encounter with an aggressive salesman (Greg Hildreth). Suddenly, Williams shifts gears and tragedy turns to something akin to outright comedy. And that mood is sustained till the end.

Tomei, though not the plump character described by Williams (though Clint Ramos’ costumes do their best to deglamorize her), nails both the grieving, volcanic widow, and the insecure woman yearning for love, who finds herself attracted to the unlikely stranger. Elliott, a Scotsman by birth though you'd never guess it, is highly entertaining in his role as the hunky doofus. And the pair play marvelously well together, and with superb comic timing when it’s called for.

All the other roles are well cast too. Rubin as the loving but defiant daughter; Swanson the conflicted nice guy seaman; Carolyn Mignini as the caring neighbor Assunta; Cassie Beck as Rosa’s school teacher; Constance Shulman as The Strega whose “evil eye” Serafina fears; and Paige Gilbert and Portia as two of Serafina’s sharp-tongued clients.

It’s rare to think of a Williams play as a “feel good” experience, but this one really is, and my audience responded very warmly at the end. 

At first, the cod Italian accents take some getting used to -- there’s a radio broadcast of role originator Maureen Stapleton who carried her accent much more lightly, though of course Magnani in the film was the real deal -- but soon the ear adjusts. 

Some found Mark Wendland’s set design misguided, and it certainly causes a bit of spatial confusion. Serafina’s house is built so abstractly that you never quite know whether the characters are indoors or out. But with its brightly colored shrine to the virgin, and attractive vista of the foamy waves on the shore providing a striking panoramic backdrop (projection designer Lucy Mackinnon), not to mention of a line of plastic pink flamingos. the eye is constantly beguiled, so on balance, I didn’t mind the mild disorientation. Ben Stanton provided the apt lighting.

Cullman’s staging seems right in step with Williams. Some have complained that the gravitas of the work has been undercut by the comedy, but I felt strongly that Cullman and his cast never for a moment lost sight of Serafina’s sorrow, even as we enjoy the cat-and-mouse seduction between her and Alvaro.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street; roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300; through Dec. 8)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Linda Vista (Second Stage Theater)


By Harry Forbes

A divorced man with a deep sense of self-loathing creates havoc for the women in his orbit in Tracy Letts' somewhat overlong, but sharply written, consistently absorbing and exceedingly well acted play which premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2017, and received its West Coast premiere earlier this year at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. 

Wheeler (Ian Barford), the play’s central character, was a once-promising photojournalist, but saddled with a profound lack of self-esteem, he's now content to toil in a dreary camera repair shop under a loathsome boss Michael (Troy West) who, when not contemplating suicide, is sexually harassing their co-worker Anita (Caroline Neff), a sturdily unflappable young woman recovering from addiction and determined not to backtrack. 

Wheeler’s sardonic friend Paul (Jim True-Frost) has just helped him move to a two-bedroom condo in the San Diego neighborhood that gives the play its title, and in short order, Paul and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy) set Wheeler up on blind date with Jules (Cora Vander Broek), a life coach with, she reveals, a degree in “Happiness.”  Despite Wheeler’s serious misgivings, he and Jules, in fact, hit it off, and begin what would appear to be a promising relationship.

But matters become complicated when Wheeler’s neighbor Minnie (Chantel Thuy), a free-spirited 27-year-old Vietnamese drifter, knocks on his door and begs for shelter after breaking up with an abusive boyfriend. 

Barford is quite extraordinary throughout, running the gamut of emotions, and he’s barely offstage. His character’s sense of intellectual superiority and his innate narcissism make it hard for us to stay in his court for the duration. But his sense of humor -- and Letts has provided him with some very funny lines -- keeps him mostly likeable so that we can see how it is that he can appeal to the women who should know better. Unfortunately, his bad behavior eventually erodes our sympathy, and at my performance, he was even hissed at several points. 

Suffice to say, it’s an admirably vanity-free performance. He’s playing a greying, middle-aged, paunchy character, and along with the women involved, fearlessly bares it all in two extraordinarily graphic sex scenes. 

The other cast members are spot-on perfect. too. Broek conveys Jules’ cheerful optimism and heartbreaking grief when her relationship with Wheeler goes south; Thuy juggles her character’s streetwise toughness but also vulnerability; and Neff convincingly maintains a no-nonsense pragmatism in the face of an abusive work situation. West starts out as a pitiful loser, but morphs into something more sinister. True-Frost is solid as the loyal friend who, in a well-written locker room scene, pulls no punches in explaining the facts of married life to Wheeler, and Murphy as his no-nonsense wife really delivers the goods in her big second act scene. 

Besides drawing fine performances from his cast, director Dexter Bullard keeps the humor and pathos in Letts’ script in expert balance. At first, Letts’ dialogue -- funny though Wheeler’s wisecracks are -- gives the play the superficial air of sitcom writing, albeit of a superior brand, but as the narrative progresses, and the more serious themes come to the fore, the play takes on a gravitas. 

Todd Rosenthal’s revolving set, deftly lit by Marcus Doshi, allows for exceptionally fluid scene changes (e.g. Wheeler’s living room, bedroom, a bar, karaoke bar, locker room, etc. Laura Bauer’s costumes likewise are character-perfect. 

At two hours and 40 minutes, the play could benefit from a bit of trimming, though I can’t say I was bored for a moment. 

(The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street; 2st.com or 212-541-4516; through Nov. 10)

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter (The York Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

I must confess I feared that Musical in Mufti’s revival of creator Ben Bagley’s 1965 revue of Cole Porter’s songs -- originally staged less than six months after the composer’s death -- might come across as terribly passe. And certainly the show’s heralding of at-the-time “neglected” Porter material would surely not still be the case. After all, thanks to enterprising groups like Encores, the New Amsterdam Theater Company, Musicals Tonight, Medicine Show, and Mufti itself, all of the shows from which these rarities derive have been revived in full, and in some cases, recorded. 

Additionally, dedicated Porter champions such as Steve Ross and the late Bobby Short (who appeared in one of the original editions of the show) have further resurrected an enormous spectrum of his songs. 

But much to my surprise, this revival -- which faithfully utilizes Bagley’s original linking narration -- registers as fresh as ever, thanks to resourceful director Pamela Hunt and a particularly well chosen and attractive cast comprising Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina, Diane Phelan, and Lee Roy Reams. 

And remarkably, although die-hard show buffs will recognize the purview of most of the songs, the show’s adventurous playlist is still, I’m reasonably certain, unfamiliar to most audiences. 

Molina is a delightful comic presence throughout the show, though she also scores on the more thoughtful ballads too, like “I Loved Him (But He Didn’t Love Me)” and “Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor).”  It was interesting to hear her contrasting, but equally valid, interpretations of the “Fifty Million Frenchmen” numbers which we had just heard a couple of weeks ago in York’s presentation of that show. 

Phelan received two of the biggest ovations at my performance with her feelingly vocalized “I Happen to Like New York” and then “After You, Who?” in the second act. She demonstrates her comedic chops with Beatrice Lillie’s “When I Was a Little Cuckoo” and her naughty duet with Gardner on “But in the Morning, No!”

Veteran Reams starts things off as an affable narrator, later offering solid renditions of “I’m in Love Again,” “I’m a Gigolo” and “Experiment,” and along the way, giving vent to his inner Marlene Dietrich and Sophie Tucker.  Mutli-talented hoofer Gardner reminds us what a polished singer he is with such chestnuts as “At Long Last Love” and “I Worship You,” the latter also from “Fifty Million Frenchmen” and, of course, dances as impressively as always to Trent Kidd’s bright choreography. 

Eric Svejcar’s keyboard accompaniment is deft and often exciting, like his spirited rendition of “Anything Goes” in the show’s overture, and adds vocal harmony to such numbers as “Let’s Fly Away.” 

Projected photos of Porter, courtesy of projection designer Jamie Goodwin,  pay homage to the original production concept of projected paintings. The creator of those images, Shirley Kaplan, appeared at the post-show talkback at my performance, and spoke warmly of creator Bagley.

Based on the extant CD of the 1965 show, which includes not only the greatly abridged original studio cast LP, but live performances, York’s production proves faithful to the song selection (if not always the gender of the vocalist on individual numbers) and Bagley’s original linking narration which made a point of the contrast between the serious world events from the First World War and beyond and Porter’s blithely urbane and witty songs. 

Though original cast members Kaye Ballard, Harold Lang, and the others were inimitable, all in all, the vocal stylings of York’s cast makes for a smoother overall listen. 

Far though we are from the ethos of the mid-1960s, Hunt and her talented cast made the show much more than just an interesting relic, and perhaps, I would suggest, one that could sustain a fully staged regular run. 

(The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue); www.yorktheatre.org or 212-935-5820; through October 20)

Photo by Ben Strothmann: Lee Roy Reams, Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina, Diane Phelan.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Slave Play (John Golden Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This provocative, often humorous, intentionally disturbing play by wunderkind Jeremy O’Harris has come to Broadway after premiering to acclaim last year at New York Theatre Workshop. I didn’t see it there, but visually, I can report it looks just fine on the larger stage of the Golden.

Without revealing more spoilers than necessary, let me say the play divides into three distinct sections. In the first part, we observe the sexual shenanigans between an antebellum female slave and her overseer; a plantation mistress and her Negro manservant; and an indentured white servant and, incongruously, the male slave under whom he labors. (In these sections, sexual content is high and fairly graphic.)

In the next (and longest) section, we find ourselves at a mixed-race couples counseling session ("antebellum sexual performance therapy"). It’s designed to help black partners reconnect with their white partners from whom they are no longer receiving sexual pleasure, a phenomenon labelled racial identify dysfunction (RID).

The session is run by partners (personal and professional) black Teá (Chalia La Tour) and hispanic Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio). The humor of their psychobabble here is deliciously spot-on. The participants comprise Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango, the one replacement in the otherwise intact Off-Broadway cast) and her white British husband Jim (versatile Paul Alexander Nolan); black Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and his actor boyfriend Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer); and Alana (Annie McNamara) and her light-skinned black husband Phillip (Sullivan Jones). The concluding part offers us a dramatic encounter between Kaneisha and Jim which distills all that has come before. 

The cast is superb with Cusasti-Moyer, McNamara, and Jones especially generating big laughs. Cusati-Moyer embodies the archetypal self-absorbed actor and one who refuses to identify as white but, on the other hand, never precisely defines his ethnicity, McNamara an overly earnest acolyte of the group desperately referring to her notes for clarity but, in fact, clueless to her own issues; and Jones playing endearingly befuddlement until clarity finally dawns.

For their parts, La Tour and Lucio are a hoot as the impassioned facilitators, relentlessly determined to “process” every moment, cheering each emotional outburst as a positive breakthrough, while inadvertently revealing that they too have some serious interpersonal issues. They are very funny, and Lucio is particularly so when she allows Patricia’s Latina heritage to surface when it suits her. 

Blankson-Wood, Kalukango and Nolan have the more serious roles, and the last two bring the play to its emotional conclusion. Kalukango, mostly silent for the long second part, has a huge monologue in the last, and impresses with her raw emotion, though elsewhere I had occasional audibility issues with her dialogue. 

Harris’ themes of racial identity and racial trauma, and the psychological warfare of white supremacy, all of which, he contends, have their roots in slavery, are intriguing, though I’m not sure I quite buy all of it. He’s clearly a terrific writer, as demonstrated last season by “Daddy” at The New Group, another lengthy and interesting work, albeit less brilliant than this. 

The intellectual arguments, interesting though they are, get a little bogged down with talkiness both in the counseling session scene and in Kaneisha’s lengthy concluding monologue. And the play could benefit by a bit of trimming. (As it is, “Slave Play” -- its title a punning reference, by the way -- runs two full hours without a break.)

Clint Ramos’ set design -- a mirrored surface in which the audience sees its own reflection, as well as a plantation panorama projected on the mezzanine balustrade -- is attractive,  though clearly meant to make us feel uncomfortable. Jiydun Chang provides some striking lighting effects which tellingly enhance the play, particularly during Kaneisha’s harrowing monologue. Lindsay Jones’ sound and original music add to the mood.  Dede Akyite antebellum and contemporary costumes are, respectively, fun and character defining. 

Director Robert O’Hara -- himself an award-winning playwright -- directs both halves most persuasively, and navigates the play’s serious and humorous mood shifts deftly.

(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com; through January 19)

The full cast of SLAVE PLAY (L to R): Ato Blankson-Wood, Chalia La Tour, Joaquina Kalukango (kneeling), Irene Sofia Lucio, Sullivan Jones, Annie McNamara, Paul Alexander Nolan, and James Cusati-Moyer. (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Fifty Million Frenchmen (The York Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

York’s "Musicals in Mufti" Cole Porter celebration has kicked off with a rare staging of the composer-lyricist’s 1929 hit, one which -- according to Porter historian Robert Kimball who spoke at the talkback after my performance -- was a crucial show in Porter's development. From that point on, Kimball contends, Porter was a major creative force on the Great White Way.

I first encountered the piece -- one of Porter’s best, chockablock as it is with one good tune after another -- at a 1991 concert performance at the Alliance Francaise, led by conductor Evans Haille who, together with Tommy Krasker, lovingly restored the score for the Cole Porter Centennial, and came up with a performable acting edition. The original company had well over 100 players, unrealistic in a modern economy.

That concert led to a marvelous recording still available on New World Records. 

As chance would have it, Haile is now York’s Executive Director at the York, so he was on hand to provide half of the sprightly two-piano accompaniment, along with David Hancock Turner. With the period-perfect addition of Dan Erben’s banjo, the score tripped along merrily. 

Since that 1991 resurrection, New York has seen the show -- which, among its treasures features the standard “You Do Something To Me” -- on a few more occasions. There was London’s Lost Musical series, led by Ian Marshall Fisher (also at the Alliance Francaise), Barbara Vann’s shoestring Medicine Show (which had actually predated the aforementioned concert in 1983, though she revived it in 2012), and Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight. Most satisfying of all, Ohio Light Opera mounted a terrific full-scale staged production with orchestra just last year. 

Though the title is “Fifty Million Frenchmen,” the focus of Herbert Fields’ book is actually not on the French, but a collection of  Americans visiting Paris. Wealthy Peter Forbes (Andy Kelso) becomes enamored of Looloo Carroll (Evy Ortiz), travelling with her social-climbing Indiana parents (Karen Murphy and Ray DeMattis). Peter’s mischievous friend Billy (Cole Burden) bets him $50,000 he can’t win Looloo’s heart and hand in a month’s time without his usual financial resources in hand. A fixed horse race critically figures in the plot before (spoiler) Peter wins the girl minutes before the bet’s deadline. 

Colorfully fleshing out the character roster, there’s cabaret singer May (dynamic Ashley Blanchet), Looloo’s lovelorn friend Joyce (Madeline Trumble), and sardonic fur-buyer Violet (Kristy Cates), and Peter and Billy’s buddy Michael (David Michael Bevis) who happens to be an old school chum of Joyce.

Wade McCollum is solid, has has some bright bits as Hotel Claridge manager (and sometime maitre d’) Louis Pernasse, and Sam Balzac is amusing as a waiter.

The youthful cast was attractive, if frankly not in the same league as that of the 1991 production with its blue-chip lineup of Howard McGillin, Kim Criswell, Jason Graae, and Karen Ziemba. Still, considering the present players had only first seen their parts a few days earlier and mine was technically only the third preview performance, they can be cut some slack, several instances of not projecting adequately notwithstanding. Satisfyingly delivered, however, were Murphy’s “The Queen of Terre Haute,” Burden’s “I Worship You,” McCollum and Balzac’s “It Isn’t Done,” and Cates’ “Where Would You Get Your Coat?” and “The Tale of the Oyster.” 

Director Hans Friedrichs kept things moving with nicely resourceful staging. Trent Kidd’s choreography was another plus, allowing Bevis and Trumble a happy interlude with “You’ve Got That Thing”  and Trumble and Ortiz with “Let’s Step Out,” especially.

Chelsea McPhilimy’s projection design, including some scene-setting vintage footage of Paris, enhanced the proceedings. 

I look forward to York’s next two Porter offerings: “The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter” (10/12-10/20), and “Panama Hattie” (10/26-11/3). 

(The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue; 212-935-5820, or online at www.yorktheatre.org; through October 6)

Photo Credit: Ben Strothmann. Pictured (left to right): Karen Murphy, Ray DeMattis, Kristy Cates, Cole Burden, Andy Kelso, Evy Ortiz, Madeline Trumble, David Michael Bevis, Ashley Blanchet, Wade McCollum, Sam Balzac