Theater: Showman in Knee Britches

Ben Franklin in Paris is a title in search of a show. This Ben (Robert Preston) is no American Renaissance man but a Broadway showman in knee britches who treats his inventions—the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, the rocking chair—as enticing props to con the yokels of Louis XVI's court. The court is ostensibly Versailles, but the real milieu is the chandelier-lit ballroom of half a hundred interchangeable musicals in which girls in flowing period gowns go swirling into musical-comedy oblivion.

In a show as synthetic as Ben Franklin in Paris, it scarcely matters whether the history is true or false. Librettist...