Ralph Byers as Benjamin Franklin (foreground), with Brennan Caldwell as Abraham Lincoln, George Merrick as George Washington, and Sandra DeNise as Alexander Hamilton. | JEREMY DANIELS
The Broadway juggernaut “Hamilton” stunned critics and audiences alike by injecting new life into a musty, iconic American statesman well over 200 years old. So perhaps dramatist Peter Kellogg figured, why not create a musical promoting one of Hamilton’s equally brilliant and colorful contemporaries, Benjamin Franklin?
“Money Talks: The Musical,” which imagines a sage, wisecracking Franklin as a $100 bill come to life in modern times, is decidedly more “Spamilton” than “Hamilton.” With tongue planted firmly in ample cheek, this hodgepodge of a musical, crammed with intentionally corny song-and-dance ditties choreographed by Michael Chase Gosselin (who also directs), tries to be many things at once — love story, history lesson, political farce, and morality play. And while it doesn’t quite succeed on any of these fronts, it’s an admirable, charming diversion nonetheless.
Kellogg, who wrote the droll book and lyrics, has borrowed heavily from the daisy-chain format of “La Ronde,” Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play about overlapping couples that examined the politics of sex and class division. David Friedman composed the music while Ann Beyersdorfer designed the scenery.
Madcap romp about greed, lust, and regret, through the sensible lens of Ben Franklin
“Money Talks” follows Franklin’s rocky journey as he is passed from a Wall Street hedge funder to a sassy stripper to a redneck gambler to a wealthy socialite, and so on. Along the way, the sage offers advice about fiduciary and family matters, and questions his relevance in the modern world, which is even more obsessed with money than in his day.
In the opening number, Franklin cavorts with his compatriots Washington, Lincoln, and Hamilton, dressed as their respective bill denominations. “Men may claim they worship God, but I’m their true religion,” they sing, with equal measure of chagrin and rancor. The irony that these great men have been reduced to crude legal tender is not lost on them.
The spirited, four-person cast works hard to keep up with the challenges of multiple roles and lightning-quick scene changes. Ralph Byers (“The Music Man”) smartly embodies the lead Franklin role, doling out advice with ample wit and flair. Sandra DeNise nimbly juggles various female roles (as well as Hamilton at the top), and is a whiz at shifting her vocals to match. Her heartfelt delivery of the understated ballad “How Did I Fall So High” is a welcome, calm oasis in a frenzy of shenanigans. Brennan Caldwell and George Merrick, who play a dizzying range of characters both male and female, each has a breakout moment, as well.
The wildly uneven musical comedy has its share of highs and lows. I thoroughly enjoyed when a female lobbyist, about to hop into bed with a senator, grabs the founding father so she can roll him up and snort a line of coke. However, the scene with the swishy male hairdresser, who is faking gay to command higher prices, is as patently offensive as it is tone-deaf and should be cut. There’s also a scene where a gay male couple trying to adopt a child is insulted by a bigoted Southern bureaucrat that feels gratuitously shoehorned in and could be fleshed out further.
“Money Talks” is at its best as a reminder of just how genius — and prescient — the civic-minded philosopher actually was. We all know he co-authored the US Constitution and pioneered harnessing electricity. But I forgot that he was an ambassador to France, and established the first public hospital, library, and fire department in the American colonies. And invented all sorts of handy gizmos.
The musical is jam-packed with maxims that are so ingrained in American life we’ve forgotten he originated them. And no, not just the obvious ones like “A penny saved is a penny earned” and “Haste makes waste.”
“God helps those who help themselves” is not from the Bible, it’s Franklin. “Everything in moderation, including moderation,” is not Shakespeare, it’s Franklin. And “Eat to live, don’t live to eat?” Not Oprah — Franklin.
To its credit, this old-fashioned tuner strives for contemporary relevance. One number boasts alarming quotes from politicians, including Trump’s infamous tweet “The concept of global warming was by and for the Chinese.”
And today’s corrupt judicial system and the current gun control debate is tackled head-on. Franklin croons:
From his honor with no honor,
To his mistress, who’s a nun,
To her daughter, who’s an ex-marine
And wants to buy a gun.
And though she has traumatic stress,
A gun show sells her one.
The beleaguered man on the $100 bill admits they blundered with the vaguely worded Second Amendment, wishing they had written “the right to bear muskets” so America would be a much safer place today.
And then there’s my favorite aphorism from the show: “Politicians are a lot like diapers. They should be changed frequently and for the same reasons.”
MONEY TALKS: THE MUSICAL | Davenport Theatre, 354 W. 45th St. | Through Sep. 3: Mon.-Tue., Thu. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8:30 p.m.; Thu., Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $25-$100 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 100 mins., with no intermission