3/8/2019 MEN WITH MONEY Aurora Theater
***** ( A+ )
GAY OLD NEW YORK
So, here's the thing. It's 1952 in Manhattan, Eleanor Roosevelt is still president, and three happy-go-lucky roommates need to come up with some quick cash to keep their rampaging landlady at bay. So, they decide to marry for money. Since this is a totally non-judgmental time and place, only one of the couplings will not be same-sex.
But, here's the other thing. Love has a sneaky way of knee-capping the best-laid plans of mice and gold-diggers. What happens if you easily land a tycoon, but that hunky hot-dog guy in the park fills your head like a '50's show tune? What happens when you fall for a rich guy, but he loses it all on a bad investment? What happens when a rich GUY falls for you, but you're more attracted to his GAL Thursday (because she's too efficient to wait for Friday), the one with all that ambition and those gorgeous gams that go the whole way to the floor?
Anyone who's ever seen a 1950's musical knows the answer to these questions. The joy and pleasure is in the singing and dancing and complicating that gets you there.
So, that's the conceit, and it's a doozy. This is a (sigh) fantasy world in which anyone, regardless of ethnicity or gender or orientation has an equal chance of running a business or marrying anyone. It is singularly and pleasantly non-judgmental about everything. Except class and wealth.
This throw-back imagine-forward new musical by Bill Nelson (Book and Lyrics) and Joseph Trefler (Music and Lyrics) is steeped in the traditions of the genre it so lovingly recreates. It opens with a "Manhattan Ballet" that sets the period and the conceit. And, it includes everything that has since become clichéd -- the "pretend to be rich while dodging your boss" party, the woo-on-the-yacht scene, the Havana Party scene, the drunken "Give me a Fella" scene, the "Go For the Tackle" scene, the "Ralph Bellamy" nice-guy-finishing-last character, the secret-that-solves-everything reveal. That they are trotted out with so much affection and (forgive me) gay abandon is a credit to the creators, the director and the cast of this alluringly compelling confection. The fact that most of the couplings are same-sex seems almost an afterthought.
Okay, it may strike you as a little WTF that the objects of our heroes' quests have functional names only -- "Hot Dog," "Tycoon," "Frenchy," "Marvatech" (the name of a company, of course). Even the "Gal Thursday" is named, um, Thursday (in a non-ironic, non-Ffordian-allusive manner). This works amusingly, but it also underscores a dark(ish) notion that even in the most non-judgmental fantasy worlds, people can still be reduced to their basic functional Identity. That they are fully-developed characters in spite of this adds a grace note of ambivalence that is strangely compelling.
It doesn't hurt that Aurora has gathered a spectacular cast of new and familiar faces. Sean Doherty, looking like a young Tom Key, plays the central role of Louis, and has been with the project since its first drafts. Kenny Tran is the naive simpleton roommate, who seems to get to the goal the quickliest. And Marcello Audino is the straight friend, willing to do anything in the name of friendship or love. Daniel Wisniewski is wonderful as Hot Dog, and, even though his secret is revealed (to us) early on, he is able to maintain an air of "too good to be true" that is appealing and admirable. Brian Robinson is staunch and mature asTycoon, Jimi Kocina pulls out his usual comic appeal as Frenchy, Cecil Washington Jr. is marvelous as Marvatech, and Adrianna Trachell is a ball of energy as Thursday. As the landlady Mrs. Mugsten (is that a real name or a function?) Candy McLellan turns in another in a seemingly endless string of comic-gem characterizations. They are all ably supported by 10-member ensemble and an 8-member band, giving us a full-voiced, appealingly harmonized sound that literally sings in our hearts.
Okay, the spectacular set by the always-reliable Julie Ray may strike some as more '20's Art Deco than '50's New-York-New-York-It's-A-Wonderful-Town, but we're in fantasy land here, so what does it matter? If the perfectly designed and timed lighting by Mike Post is more 21st-Century computer-driven whiz-bangery than '50's Klieg Light and Fresnel simple, we're in fantasy land here, so what does it matter? If the Sound Design by Ed Thrower is more modern Head-Mic-And-Static than period Merman-Belting, we're in fantasy land here, so what does it matter? And if the Costume Design by Elizabeth Rasmusson is more ... okay, the costumes are just perfect, especially the black-and-white motif of the ensemble. And, as usual, Justin Anderson's Direction, Ricardo Aponte's Choreography, and Ann-Carol Pence's MD'ing are spot on, crazy perfect, and a joy to experience.
So, because the music is so ear-wormy-memorable, because the joy of the whole is so bloody contagious, and because the piece as a whole is all about "All-Out Love," I can't help but respond with the highest and warmest praise in my arsenal.
Yes my Musical-Geeky biases are out in full force today, but, I have always acknowledged these biases, even wallowed in them. And Men With Money is by far one of the best new Geek-Wallows this year!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #ATMenWithMoney)
Adrianna Trachell, Candy McLellan, and Daniel Wisniewski Photo by Chris Bartelski