Tuesday, July 25, 2017

46 (2017-2018): Review: MONEY TALKS (seen July 24, 2017)

"The Buck Stops Here"

Benjamin Franklin never said “Money talks but bullshit walks.” However, as the klutzy Money Talks: The Musical reminds us, he came up with so many other money-related maxims, he probably would have also coined this one had he lived long enough. Bullshit aside, money does actually talk in this show, mainly through Ben (Ralph Byers) himself, represented as a $100 bill, but also in the persons of George Washington (George Merrick) as a one-dollar bill, Abe Lincoln (Brennan Caldwell) as a fiver, and the ubiquitous Alexander Hamilton (Sandra DeNise) as a ten-spot. Their period costumes, designed by Vanessa Lueck, with fabrics bearing currency-influenced motifs, are the show’s creative highlight.  
Brennan Caldwell, Ralph Byers, George Merrick, Sandra DeNice. Photo: Jeremy Daniels.
For the most part, this greenback chorus takes a back seat to scenes clumsily constructed along the lines of Arthur Schnitzler’s once controversial 1897 play, Reigen, well known as La Ronde. Schnitzler’s classic strings together 10 scenes, each with two characters; when a scene ends and a new one begins, one character from the previous scene remains and a new one appears, each scene expressing another variation on the theme of sex.

Book and lyric writer Peter Kellogg’s script for Money Talks, its music by David Friedman, shifts the emphasis from sex to money but struggles to maintain the structural conceit, which, like the innocuous scenes themselves, goes bankrupt midway through. Even the money theme dissipates in order to skim familiar political issues, including topics like gay adoption. Overall, the show’s point of view is scattershot, and we’re left to ponder what exactly it wants to say about money, or anything else, that we don’t already know or need reminding of.
George Merrick, Sandra DeNise, Brennan Caldwell, Ralph Byers. Photo: Jeremy Daniels.
Franklin is on stage throughout, representing the vicissitudes of a $100 bill as it passes from one person to another. Although no one hears him except us, Ben comments on everything, usually citing one of the maxims from his Poor Richard's Almanac, each with some financial or ethical content. His experiences take him to many places, including a strip club, a stripper’s apartment, a Vegas casino, the lawn of an LA mansion, a recording studio, an Italian restaurant, the inside of a purse, a hair salon, a law office, an adoption agency, an evangelical church, a bank, and so on.

The events often seem created simply as setups for Ben—who loves to brag about his many accomplishments—to zing a famous proverb. He puts up when you want him to shut up. Not that there’d be much there if he did. Awkwardly directed and choreographed by Michael Chase Gosselin on Ann Beyersdorfer’s abstract set using movable black cubes to define locales, with lots of projections (by Ido Levran) on a backdrop resembling a digitalized map of the U.S., Money Talks clunks along from one seriously unfunny scene to the next. Some of the scene transitions define amateurism; and must we keep seeing stagehands doing shifts?
Ralph Byers, George Merrick, Brennan Caldwell, Sandra DeNice. Photo: Jeremy Daniels.
Ralph Byers brings a veteran’s polish to Franklin but can’t prevent the guy from boring us to tears. Each of the others plays around a dozen roles, using quick costume changes and wigs, some of them pure cheese. Among the panoply of stereotypes are a hedge fund manager, a sexy stripper, a supposedly dumb blonde, a Hispanic gardener, a guitar playing (ouch!) female singer, a swishy hair stylist, an operatic Italian chef, a crooked cop, a hooker, a Jimmy Swaggart-like preacher, and even a despicable CEO portrayed by putting him in a business suit, a long tie, and a bright red baseball cap.
Ralph Byers. Photo: Jeremy Daniels.
The actors are lively and committed but, generally, lack the versatility and skill with accents to make their clichéd characters memorable. They sing Friedman’s generic score—which includes country, gospel, and pop rock—with verve but only passable musical chops. Only Sandra DeNise shows the kind of looks, voice, and charm that might lead to better things.

Money Talks talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. And that’s no bullshit.


Davenport Theatre
354 W. 54th St., NYC
Through September 3