Review by Sarah Downs
July 31, 2017
It’s 2017 and Ben Franklin is spinning in his grave – or at least in his engraving. What’s a philosopher to do? Well, in the case of Money Talks, Ben (Ralph Byers) feels compelled to step out of that hundred-dollar bill and remind us of some simple truths, drawing on the wisdom of his eerily prescient aphorisms. Rather like the ghost of Christmas present Ben Franklin the man takes us through Ben Franklin the currency’s journey, with each transaction demonstrating how one moment can inspire a cascade of consequences, for good or ill. The series of musical vignettes are connected by the overlap of one character into the following vignette. Peter Kellogg has cleverly structured the narrative as a reflection of those monetary transactions. Where Ben Franklin is handed off from pocket to pocket, so the individual stories are “handed off” from scene to scene.
After a catchy opening number, Byers and a trio of engaging, versatile performers play out the various stops along Ben’s travels in a madcap series of vignettes and dizzying (some a bit too dizzying) costume changes. From the cash-happy manager of a hedge fund to a struggling singer to a greedy pastor who lives off the gullibility of his followers, Brennan Caldwell, Sandra DeNise and George Merrick demonstrate vocal and theatrical range. They pack a lot into each impersonation. All three are very good singers, particularly DeNise, who has more vocal colors up her sleeve than the usual Broadway sound. As the young aspiring singer she has the best song in the snow, which she performs simply, without affectation. That kind of focus draws an audience in. Byers creates the same effect in Franklin’s thoughtful ’11:00 number’ at the end of the show. Byers is an actor comfortable in his skin. He speaks and sings with a warm, approachable sound (it’s no surprise he’s a busy voice over artist) and when Franklin entreats us to reassess our priorities we feel the sincerity.
Like any show in previews, Money Talks has yet to jell fully, but as the actors gain confidence in their blocking, the rough edges in Michael Chase Gosselin‘s direction will no doubt condense into a greater precision. What feels lacking is a sense of clear choices. The stage is small and the backstage non-existent. This inevitably leads to a certain chaos which, if you play it, can work. It’s mayhem — but it’s fun mayhem! David Friedman‘s music is really good, with some terrific, witty songs, although some more harmony here and there would not go amiss.
The costumes by Vanessa Leuck are basically successful, particularly the clever 18th century garb. In this case, money doesn’t just talk, it makes for a darned good waistcoat. The quick changes, however, are a bit too ambitious and could use a little careful editing. Worry less about wigs and jackets and more about easing the transitions. Set the actors free!
The bigger problem is the set, with the significant exception of the fantastic backdrop. Comprised of simple white tiles on which various images are projected, the backdrop is a worthy visual focal point, subtle yet very present. If only the rest of Ann Beyersdorfer‘s design followed that cue. Instead, the actors have to dodge a collection of wayward modular black boxes which roll across stage, landing right in the actors’ paths with uncanny consistently, adding to the chaos.
Money Talks has the bones of a really good show, especially with regard to the talented cast. The bravado of witty writing and melodic tunes carry a heartfelt sentiment. We all really could use some Franklinesque guidance right now, and need to rethink our cultural priorities before it’s too late. It is a timely message Money Talks delivers with a light hand and endearing humor. It would be great for everyone to hear it, if the production could just get out of the way of the material.