Daniel Wisniewski (left) and Sean Doherty appear in the musical comedy “Men With Money” at Aurora Theatre. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS BARTELSKI

Aurora’s ‘Men With Money’ puts a gay musical twist on classic themes

Everything old is new again. At first glance, it may look and sound and feel like a stylized homage to such musicals of yesteryear as “On the Town” or “How to Marry a Millionaire,” but “Men With Money” also owes about as much to a vintage episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

Aurora Theatre’s world-premiere staging of the show — highlighting a script and lyrics by Bill Nelson, with music and additional lyrics by Joseph Trefler — is very aptly billed as “an old-fashioned brand new musical.” Indeed, although the plot unfolds in 1952 New York, this clearly isn’t your grandfather’s 1952 New York.

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In the frothy opening number, dressed in fashionable black-and-white by costume designer Elizabeth Rasmusson, members of the chorus sing and dance and otherwise stroll around scenic designer Julie Ray’s sleek cityscape, footloose and fancy-free, like they hadn’t a care in the world. That, in itself, basically goes with the territory, essentially par for the course in the familiar tradition of most musical theater, right?

That’s not all, though. Rather anachronistically, given the period setting, some of the couples happen to be interracial. Even more incongruously, another pair is gay, and still another is lesbian. What gives here? The song’s title offers a clue: “Fantasy-Land New York, 1952.”

Take from the first column the premise of those three buddies who go “On the Town” to find the true love of a girlfriend. Add from the second column the idea of that trio of gold-diggers in “Millionaire,” each wanting to land her own “sugar daddy.” Then behold “Men With Money,” the story of two gay men — plus a third friend, who might be “bi-curious” (if the label existed back then) — who embark on a mission to meet and marry a “sincerely wealthy” husband.

The casual openness of their “Machiavellian” pursuit, not to mention the social acceptance or legality of it, is utterly matter-of-fact, never an issue. Refreshingly, as conceived by Nelson, and aside from its underlying message about love being more important than money, the show doesn’t make any grand statements, really. It just is what it is.

Aurora Theatre’s musical comedy “Men With Money” features Kenny Tran (from left), Sean Doherty and Marcello Audino. CONTRIBUTED BY CHRIS BARTELSKI
Photo: For the AJC

As an old-fashioned musical, “Men With Money” thrives on a delightful dozen or so fun and catchy songs, nicely accompanied by music director Ann-Carol Pence and an eight-member band, and energetically performed by an ensemble of talented singers and dancers. As something brand new, it also features the sensational choreography of Ricardo Aponte, who seems to relish originating work, for a change, instead of simply honoring whatever moves came before in previous incarnations of an established show.

Under the customarily colorful and breezy direction of Aurora associate artistic director Justin Anderson, the production probably could have been more creative or elaborate with regard to envisioning the surrealism of a parallel universe. His cast, however, is generally top-notch.

Winsome out-of-towner Sean Doherty charms and engages as the main protagonist, Louis, as do Brian Robinson as the sympathetic tycoon on whom he sets his sights, and New York-based Daniel Wisniewski as the eligible hot-dog vendor with whom Louis is bound to live happily ever after. Standing out, too, is Marcello Audino as the so-called straight-man of the piece.

It’s at once comforting and encouraging to realize that the Alliance isn’t the only theater company in town dedicated to the development of new musicals. The ultimate test of Aurora’s “Men With Money” may not be quite as focused on securing a Broadway engagement as it is merely a matter of whether its arguably older, less adventurous core audience will embrace the show at all. If those folks truly appreciate what’s good for them, they’re definitely in store for a treat.

THEATER REVIEW

“Men With Money”

Through April 7. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 10 a.m. Tuesdays (March 19 and 26 only). $30-$65. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222. www.auroratheatre.com.

Bottom line: A peppy 1950s-style musical, with a quirky modern-day twist.

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