A silly giddy re-creation of an early Mark Brothers musical, staged with wit and energy
By Joel Benjamin
The Marx Brothers first made their mark on Broadway with a vehicle tailored to their insane eccentricities. The 1924 musical farce, I’ll Say She Is established four of the five brothers—Gummo had pretty much dropped out of performing by this time—after a long vaudeville career. Written by Will B. Johnstone (book and lyrics) with music by Tom Johnstone (with additional music by Alexander Johnstone) this show—here adapted by Noah Diamond—is dated, silly, overlong, but entertaining enough to warrant a visit to the East Village Connelly Theater. The sense of anarchy, that something witty and arch will emerge from the mouths of the four actors portraying the Marx Brothers keeps this light-weight spectacle rolling along.
On a multi-tier, multi-purpose set constructed by Joe Diamond, this musical revue is barely held together by the adventures of a rich girl, Beauty (a solid and lovely Melody Jane) who seeks new thrills away from the stuffy mansion of her Aunt Ruby (the Margaret Dumont stand-in, Kathy Biehl, properly huffy and confused). In fact, she proclaims she will marry the man who gives her new thrills.
Enter the Marx Brothers who help in her journey to marital bliss, leading her on many adventures as they wander through Wall Street (at its giddy height in 1924), the court of Napoleon at Versailles, Broadway, posh Park Avenue and even an opium den in Chinatown. The final screwball courtroom scene doesn’t quite tie up any loose ends, but is a display of all the Marx Brothers shtick they later developed to perfection in their films.
Of course, all the places they visit somehow always seem to have pretty chorines, zany cartoonish characters singing and dancing in elaborate costumes, opulent by off-Broadway standards (designed by Julz Kroboth).
Of course, the script is not exactly subtle and is full of period racial and sexual stereotypes, like a swishy butler, Simpson, played with a hilarious straight face by C.L. Weatherstone who also registers in various other characters. This version of history and Chinatown would be wince inducing if not for the good natured direction by Amanda Sisk.
Playing the most recognizable brother, Noah Diamond (who helped fashion this revival) captures the energy of the young smart-ass Groucho as we know him from their early filmed plays. Complete with greasepaint mustache and loping walk, he keeps the show together, quipping and improvising.
The less charismatic Zeppo, the one in normal garb, is played by a debonair Matt Walters. The most “normal,” he is clearly the one who catches Beauty’s eye, despite Groucho’s lecherous pounces. As Chico, Matt Walters captures his ersatz Italian accent and personality. He also plays a mean piano, if not in the real Chico’s league, then certainly nothing to sneeze at. Equally adept at his instrument is the Harpo of Seth Sheldon whose harp solo nearly stops the show. Sheldon cleverly plays up the mischievous qualities of Harpo.
The large chorus of cutie-pies skillfully runs through Shea Sullivan’s basic, but evocative, step-kick-turn choreography. This isn’t Balanchine, but neither is it summer stock.
The fascinating program notes, full of interesting stories and printed in old-fashioned type, with vintage advertisements, are worth mentioning. It puts the show in perspective and helps maintain the period feel of I’ll Say She Is.
I’ll Say She Is: The Lost Marx Brothers Musical (through July 3, 2016)
Connelly Theater 220 East 4 Street, between Avenues A & Bm New York, NY
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.illsaysheis.com
Running time: two hours 15 minutes, including one intermission