By Ron Fassler . . .
It seems hard to fathom, but it’s been forty-two years since A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine appeared on Broadway (I saw it more than once). With music by Frank Lazarus (who also performed in the show) and book and lyrics by Dick Vosburgh, the show had first been done in London. But when Tommy Tune was handed the chores of directing and choreographing, he felt the two-part revue needed some extra oomph, which he got with welcome songs provided by Jerry Herman. Lovingly done, it was steeped in nostalgia in a stylized production that featured a Tony Award winning performance from Priscilla Lopez (hilarious as Harpo in the Marx Brothers sendup that consists of Act Two) with Tune himself taking home the Best Choreography prize (shared with Thommie Walsh).
This time we are getting an off-Broadway revival from the J2 Spotlight Company’s second show of their three-show season, located on West 42nd Street at Theater Row. Making fine use of its small stage, director Robert W. Schneider has chosen a game cast who not only sing, dance and act with joyful abandon, but even play musical instruments from time to time. Its Day in Hollywood half is a collection of songs (no sketches) all done as if being performed by the ushers at the fabled Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, most famous for the famous feet in cement that tourists have been flocking to since 1927, having opened nearly a hundred years ago. A Night in the Ukraine (oh, the irony) is a reimagining of a film the Marx Brothers might have made but never did. Groucho, Chico and Harpo are all brought back to life by three actors: David B. Friedman, who never pushes his Groucho and lands joke after joke after joke; Mike Cefalo, a delightfully wacky and adorable Chico, and Suzanne Slade, whose horn does all the talking for her and whose expressions mimicked so many of Harpo’s priceless faces. The gags are fast and furious and the songs (ditties, really), are very much in the vein of what were once heard back in the 1930s when the Marx’s were in their heyday. Here Schneider wisely gives his actors a wide berth to let loose with the controlled chaos that were the brothers’ branded signature-style.
Best here to mention the entire company in addition to this stellar trio, all of whom deliver the goods with confidence and talent to spare — Felipe Galganni, Stephanie Israelson, Lauren Lukacek, Marina Vidal and Mark William, who has a voice exactly like those of crooners once copiously heard throughout that era. Two pianos are utilized, played by Christopher Zander and the show’s musical director, Miles Plant. The person with the work most cut out for them (exclusively in the first half) is choreographer Deidre Goodwin, mostly due to the confines of the shoebox stage. She succeeds admirably, even though the cast is made up of performers who are often more attuned to acting and singing than their tap dancing. The motto may have been to keep it simple, keep it focused, and then pray a little for extra guidance.
I was especially happy that the sold-out audience seemed to have the best time, even though there is little doubt most movie references went over a great many people’s heads. It’s been a long time since “Clark and Claudette” and a song by Jeanette McDonald to Nelson Eddy (who?) got all its laughs even without the bonus of knowing exactly what and who was being spoofed. That’s not only testament to the show holding up, but to J2 Spotlight’s ability to take these old chestnuts and serve them up warm and toasty. Bravo.
A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine runs through March 5th at Theater Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. The Baker’s Wife begins performances March 10th and runs through March 20th. For further information, go to: https://www.j2spotlightnyc.com
Photos: Russ Rowland