“Shtick Marx the Plot”
|Stars range from 5-1.|
Note: An earlier version of this review misquoted a line from the dialogue: "I shall not fire until I see the whites of their eggs. That's a good yolk." The part about the "yolk" is not in the show but is cited in Gerald Bordman's American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle.
In case you haven’t noticed, the New York theatre is currently enjoying a mini-festival of Roaring 20s musicals. The big one, of course, is the greatly revised, star-studded Broadway production egregiously retitled Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed; however, if you don’t mind trekking to the Connelly Theatre in the Lower East Side's Alphabet City, you can find an attempt—clumsy as it is—at a much more faithful revival (albeit of community theatre quality) of a lesser-known, old-time, “musical comedy revue.” It's called I’ll Say She Is, and originally opened at the Casino Theatre in 1924 (after a nearly year-long pre-Broadway tour), running for 313 performances.
|Foreground, starting second from L: Melody Jane, Matt Walters, Noah Diamond, Seth Shelden, Matt Roper. Photo: Stefan Timphus.|
Mostly (and justifiably) forgotten, except by musical theatre historians, the innocuous show owes its place in theatre history to the fact that it turned a sibling team of vaudevillians called the Marx Brothers—Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo—into Broadway stars. The first three, of course, soon became stage and film legends; Zeppo and another brother, Gummo, became major Hollywood agents. Thus the show’s new subtitle, “The Lost Marx Brothers Musical.”
|Melody Jane, Noah Diamond. Photo: Stefan Timphus.|
Noah Diamond, who plays Groucho and authored a book called Gimme a Thrill: The Story of I’ll Say She Is, The Lost Marx Brothers Musical and How It Was Found, has resuscitated the script, based on the 30-page, scenario-like, 1923 rehearsal typescript (book and lyrics by Will B. Johnstone; music by Tom Johnstone, with additional music by Alexander Johnstone); it was first seen locally at the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival. Having lovingly pieced together his text from the fragments he collected during his research, Diamond claims responsibility for about half the lyrics and a third of the book. The night I attended, though, the Connelly Theatre didn’t resound with “the boisterous laughter” critic Percy Hammond reported on at the Casino in 1924, where he added that “Such shouts of merriment have not been heard . . . these many years.” Of course, given the madcap brothers’ fondness for improvisation, they probably added new gags at every performance regardless of how set the script was.
As Diamond himself points out, I’ll Say She Is has a flimsy plotline that’s little more than an excuse to tie the songs, dances, and comedy together; though he’s filled out the plot a bit, it remains largely invisible amid a confetti shower of shtick. If you’ve seen the great Marx Brothers movies, like Animal Crackers, The Cocoanuts, and A Night at the Opera, you’ll have a pretty good idea of all that Marxist madness and punny funniness.
There’s the silent, deadpan Harpo (the versatile Seth Shelden, outstanding) with his curly red wig, battered top hat, honking horn, baggy jacket filled with loot (the bit with the cascading silverware is a highlight), raising his leg so someone can hold it by the thigh, chasing after girls, and displaying musical skill on the harp and other instruments. (No wonder. Shelden's dad is the superb clarinetist, Paul Shelden.) Then there are Chico (Matt Roper), with his Sicilian accent, pointy hat and short jacket, card playing antics, and piano virtuosity, and Groucho, with his plastered-on black eyebrows and mustache, loose black suit, ever-present cigar, and nonstop wisecracks. These zanys carry out all the crazy business while their better-looking brother, Zeppo (Matt Walters), covers the singing male romantic lead.
|Melody Jane. Photo: Stefan Timphus.|
The plot? Well, let’s just say it features the brothers trying out for a talent agency, followed by their encounter with a stuffy, or better, well-stuffed, society matron named Ruby (Kathy Biehl struggling to channel Margaret Dumont) and her bored young niece, Beauty (Melody Jane, adorable, the show's most polished singer). Beauty, suffering from “suppressed desires,” sings that she wants someone to “gimme a thrill.” When hypnotized she imagines she’s Josephine and her dream scene produces a period-costume extravaganza with Groucho as her quip-a-minute Napoleon and his brothers as her hidden lovers, Alphonse, Gaston, and Francois. A typical line: "I shall not fire until I see the whites of their eggs." Or: "You must be wrapped in cellophane, because you're awfully fresh."
One of her various thrill-seeking adventures takes her to a Chinatown opium den that includes a so-called apache dance; Beauty’s arrested here for a mass murder and then tried, with Harpo as the judge and Groucho and Chico as lawyers. Somewhere in all the mayhem Groucho becomes a pipe-smoking, winged fairy and offers a crack about not being able to use the bathrooms in North Carolina, one of a sprinkling of jokes nodding to current events (more would have helped). There are lots of second-rate songs and dances (accompanied only by pianist Sabrina Chap and percussionist Matt Talmadge); I feared for the old stage’s stability when the 10 chorus girls attacked it with their tap shoes. Three of the chorines also show off their considerable skill at blowing brass instruments. Where was I? Oh, yes, Zeppo (not Zippo) is the thrill that finally lights Beauty’s fire.
It’s easy to see how sensational the early Marx Brothers must have appeared with their anarchic, anything-goes humor, never allowing a serious moment to intrude without a horn honk, a rapid riposte, or a lecherous leer. Now, nearly 100 years after they reached the Great White Way, their idiosyncrasies have become iconic. Shelden, Roper, and Diamond are all fine replicas of the originals, but they’re replicas doing bits that--except for diehard fans--are growing moldy. If you’re a rabid Marxist, you’ll appreciate the nostalgia they inspire and will admire their impressionist skills; if you’re not, seeing them cavort in a nonsensical storyline peppered with not a single memorable song or dance over two and a half hours is an endurance test I recommend only if TCM can’t satisfy your Marxian cravings.
Partly, this is because the production, ploddingly directed by Amanda Sisk and conventionally choreographed by Shea Sullivan, is so cheesy you may want to spread your favorite jam over it. Could the presence of a program credit for “scene construction” (Joe Diamond) and the absence of one for scene design be because the set is so amateurish and ugly that no one wanted to be associated with it? And why, in a show with over 20 cast members, are the many scene shifts handled not by having them choreographed into the action but by slowing everything down as two women, carelessly dressed in basic stagehand black, do the job? Despite an obviously low budget, some effort, thankfully, has gone into Julz Kroboth’s period costumes, especially for the sizable, hardworking chorus line.
Still wondering if I’ll Say She Is might be a lost jazz age gem? I’ll say it’s not.
Through July 2