This is the guy who wrote Anna Karenina? Librettist-lyricist Peter Kellogg, perhaps less than happy with the memories of that short-lived 1992 Broadway musical, has turned about as far away from tragic romance as it is possible to turn for his new project. Picture this: a small, whimsical Off-Broadway musical—a book show, but with a loose narrative allowing for plenty of sketchlike comedy, and with a structure borrowed freely from Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. A little social comment, but broad characters and an overriding silliness that induces, if not a lot of guffaws, a fair number of smiles. Music by David Friedman, best known for the great cabaret song “My Simple Christmas Wish” and several syrupy ballads that were gracefully sung by the late Nancy Lamott. Hence, Money Talks.
And the money literally talks in this merry musical at the Davenport, and sings, a lot. The lead character is a hundred-dollar bill, the one with the face of Benjamin Franklin (Ralph Byers). After a swell opening number with Franklin commiserating with George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Alexander Hamilton about cash’s role in modern society, we simply follow the money—the adventures of Franklin as he’s passed, Schnitzler-style, from person to person, commenting constantly with asides from Poor Richard's Almanac and other Franklin classics. It’s a fabulous idea for a cheeky little musical comedy, and if the execution doesn’t always match the concept, let’s cut it some slack. How many cheeky little musical comedies have you enjoyed lately?
Ben is handed from a Wall Street sleazeball in a strip club (Brennan Caldwell) to an exotic dancer (Sandra DeNise), who’s married to an unemployed “entrepreneur” (George Merrick) who grabs the C-note and takes off for Vegas, where he loses it in a Texas Hold ’Em tournament to a smart blonde cookie who plays dumb, who flirtingly tips her gardener with it, who gives it to Juanita, his pop-singer daughter, to make a demo recording. Juanita befriends the recording engineer, who takes her to dinner, where it’s left with his pal the Italian chef, who—you get the idea. Ben also ends up in the pockets, purses, and wallets of a corrupt politician, a barber who pretends to be French and gay to charge more, a holy-roller minister and his wife, the Wall Street scumbag’s even scummier boss, and several others. Many are caricatures, and a couple of them court offensiveness: is mincing even halfway funny anymore, and is there any point in slapping the Jims and Tammy Fayes of the world this late in the game? Money Talks is set in the “recent past,” but its targets often feel distinctly ’80s and ’90s, if not older. Smart dumb blondes? They go back at least to Anita Loos.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. The cast of four, Forbidden Broadway–style, often has to make lightning changes into Vanessa Leuck’s suitably cartoonish costumes, and much of the diversion is wondering who’ll turn up next, as what. (Merrick gets to play a bush. Not a Bush, a bush.) Except for Byers, whose Franklin is vocally uncertain and who doesn’t exactly pulsate with personality, they have versatile voices—especially DeNise, who’s given a real workout—and are directed by Michael Chase Gosselin to cultivate laugh-getting business that isn’t in the script; Merrick’s smirking cop is a small gem.
You might want Kellogg’s lyrics to dig deeper and make more pointed satirical observations, but at least they’re neat: “I embraced democracy and helped it grow,” laments Merrick’s Hamilton, “and now though I’m the subject of a hit Broadway show, you might need a hundred of me if you want to go.” And yes, Friedman’s music could be less generic. There's not a lot to grab onto, and David Hancock Turner’s all-synth arrangements are no help: the score is played live, but it might as well be canned. Franklin has an 11 o’clock number (actually, it arrived at about 7:30) that’s uncomfortably close to John Adams’ “Is Anybody There?” in 1776, and Juanita’s alleged top-40 hit, “How Did I Fall So High,” would never clear the top 200.
Anyway, it’s all over in a little more than an hour and a half, and along the way we’ve experienced some sharp satirical observations, mostly courtesy of Franklin’s still-pertinent commentary, and seen a talented ensemble take some lighthearted swipes at contemporary living. Money Talks could hit harder, and traffic less in stereotypes we’ve seen before. But a pleasant summer evening’s entertainment? You got it.
Visceral Entertainment’s Money Talks plays through Sept. 3 at the Davenport Theatre (354 W. 45th St.). Evening performances are 7:30 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees are 3 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets and information, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.