NY Theater Review by JK Clarke
Most of us know the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo & Zeppo) from their clever, zany movies of the 1930s. Chief among them: Duck Soup, A Day at the Races and A Night at the Opera. The films are known for their witty dialog and clever slapstick. What’s less known is that most of these films were adapted from the Brothers’ Broadway stage plays. Even less known is that their very first Broadway production, I’ll Say She Is, never made it to the silver screen. In fact, much of the original play was lost, and only through painstaking research and ingenuity has it been pieced together by Producer/Adaptor/Groucho, Noah Diamond, and the rest of the production team. After a debut at MarxFest this past May, I’ll Say She Is has returned to the stage for the first time in 90 years and is playing at the 2014 NY International Fringe Festival.
The storyline, like most Marx Brothers productions, is a simple one: rich girl, bored, decides that the man who can provide her with the biggest thrill will be the one to marry her. The premise, like most of their films, is merely a conduit for bits, songs and gags from the Marx Brothers’ vaudeville productions. But as usual, because of the quality of those gags, it works.
Full disclosure: I’ve been a Marx Bros. fan most of my life. So, naturally I was skeptical. But given the scope and scale of the production (a huge cast of nearly 20 performers and a two hour show, complete with dances, songs and prop gags) and the absurdly short production cycle of a small handful of performances, this was quite a feat.
I went with a friend who’s also a fan and is particularly curious about vaudeville. It was a tall order to fill, but we left the theater quite satisfied: Zeppo (Aristotle Stamat) was as Zeppo as he could be, and quite good; Chico (Robert Pinnock) resembled the original, did the accent well, too, but was slightly quieter and considerably less manic; Harpo (Seth Shelden) was shockingly tall for Harpo, and somewhat less musically inclined, but a fabulously funny performer—he pulled off the difficult physical gags admirably and better than could have been expected, exhibiting fantastically goofy, cross-eyed faces that were an utter delight. But the absolute stunner of the night was Noah Diamond as Groucho. Wow! It was as if the man himself were on stage. Diamond had the look, feel, timing and connection to the audience that made Groucho so special. What’s more, in moments of perfectly understandable technical mishaps, Diamond ad-libbed and cracked wise with the audience and other performers in ways that would’ve made Groucho proud. Diamond has apparently dedicated a good portion of his life to his love for and performance of the comic genius, and to very noble effect. I feel as if I saw Groucho himself perform live on stage. And what a treat that was.
The remainder of the production elements were passable. The songs and performance numbers could have used some work, but were, again, quite good considering limitations in scope and purpose. And other supporting performers were admirable, particularly the Margaret Dumont-esque Ruby Mintworth (Kathy Biehl)—like Dumont, she was Groucho’s foil; and the bored debutante, Beauty (Melody Jane).
This is a production that truly deserves a second (or in this case, third) act, in which it is mounted Off-Broadway and given the time and attention it truly deserves. With a limited amount of polish it could turn into a popular show, as there are countless Marx Bros fans who would absolutely enjoy this charming night at the theater.
I’ll Say She Is. New York International Fringe Festival, 2014. Remaining performances: WED 8/20 @ 8:45 FRI 8/22 @ 9:30. VENUE #13: Sheen Center – THE LORETTO, 18 Bleecker Street (at Mott). www.illsaysheis.com