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I値l Say She Is

Kathy Biehl & Noah Diamond

 

By Marc Miller


Those who revere the Marx Brothers葉here are still quite a few of us, thank you揺ave always been curious about I値l Say She Is. The first Marx musical, written by no one you ever heard of (book and lyrics, Will B. Johnstone; music, Tom Johnstone), landed on Broadway in 1924, after the brothers had toured in vaudeville for 20 years, and became a surprise hit. It drew the adulation of such then-notables as Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker, ran nearly a year, and inspired no less than George S. Kaufman and Irving Berlin to pen the brothers next show, The Cocoanuts. But like so many 20s hit musicals, it has survived only in fragments. So blessings to you, theatrical historian Noah Diamond, and to the Connelly Theater, for cobbling together as complete and faithful an I値l Say She Is as is possible nearly a century later. And for finding such splendid stand-ins for Groucho (Diamond), Harpo (Seth Shelden), Chico (Matt Roper), and even Zeppo (Matt Walters).


Melody Jane Photos by Stephan Timphus


It痴 always been known as a musical revue, a loose collection of songs and sketches strung together to display chorus girls, set toes tapping, and let the Marxes run riot. Not true, it turns out: I値l Say She Is is a book musical, not the most finely tuned you値l ever witness, but fitted out with plot and songs that have at least a nodding acquaintance with each other. Beauty (Melody Jane), a bored heiress cared for by her Margaret Dumont of an aunt (Kathy Biehl), announces to the press that she値l marry any man who can give her a thrill (cue the jazz ballad, 敵ive Me a Thrill). Enter the fortune-hunting brothers, each plying a personality solidly crafted from wandering the vaudeville hinterlands for decades. Groucho puns, insults, ad libs, ends up wooing Margaret Dumont rather than Beauty, and injects current-events commentary. (Diamond indulges in a North Carolina bathroom riposte, and asks Beauty in a Cinderella sketch, 展hy are you crying, Little Girl? Are you poor, or have you been following the election?) Chico puns in mock-Italian, exhibits pronounced stupidity, and plays the piano in a unique trigger-finger style. Zeppo does straight-man things, and eventually gets the girl. (It helps that Walters, besides looking good in a suit, quite resembles Zeppo in profile, and is similarly blessed with a pleasant tenor.) And the silent Harpo is a law unto himself. Shelden pantomimes exquisitely, captures Harpo痴 sweetness-mixed-with-anarchy, has mastered the 敵ookie (the cross-eyed, bloated-cheek, tongue-out look Harpo trotted out at least once in every movie), and even plays the harp. Not as nimbly as Harpo, but let痴 give him credit for trying.


He appears to have studied Harpo very closely, and Diamond must have watched Duck Soup a hundred times. His Groucho is a near-perfect visual and vocal match, and the loose limbs, eyebrow-waggling, loped walk, and rude asides to the audience (典hat痴 the best joke in the show, after a terrible pun on 都nuff) conjure a thrill akin to what Twenties audiences must have felt. Roper痴 Chico has the accent and insolence right, and the amiable laziness that set Chico off a little from the sibs.


It痴 a big production for the intimate Connelly, and the strain does show. Ten, count 弾m, ten chorines parade around in elaborate cheap-versions-of-Ziegfeld headgear, play bit parts, and tap. The piano and drums, lodged for some reason in the rear of the theater, are loud, but often drowned out by the egregiously overmiked players. Shea Sullivan痴 choreography is at best utilitarian and inexpertly executed, though there痴 a nice Apache dance that has nothing to do with anything, by Dante Adela and Peyton Lustig. And while director Amanda Sisk has done splendidly by the Marxes, nobody else onstage quite measures up. The voices are mostly weak, Jane痴 Beauty is shrill and charmless, and there have to be better Margaret Dumonts around town than Biehl. Mark Weatherup, Jr. does well as several authority figures brought in for the brothers to mock and infuriate, and a hardworking Corrado Alicata in several roles, doubling for an absent actor last night, gives great supercilious butler. A salute, too, to the stagehands: Their efforts are herculean, what with having to roll in a piano for Chico痴 specialty, then out again, and pick up whatever props the Marxes have discarded or destroyed.The score didn稚 set the airwaves on fire in 1924 and won稚 today, though at least we get an overture妖oes anyone else miss overtures?預nd a 展all Street Blues that sticks in the head. Wall Street is one of Beauty痴 destinations to find a thrill; another is Central Park, and another is a Chinatown opium den, where, this being a 20s musical, ten chorus girls can be machine-gunned down, and it痴 just a blithe plot contrivance to spur the next scene.


釘ook musical was a relative term in 1924, and rest assured, there痴 more than a whiff of revue here, with the brothers frequently abandoning the plot to wander down whatever byway will offer opportunities for satire and lunacy. The highlight of the original production, evidently, was the Napoleon and Josephine sketch that ends the first act, with Groucho痴 emperor battling with the other brothers for the lady痴 affections. (The original Beauty was an actress named Lotta Miles, and there痴 even a pun on her name somewhere in the lyrics, along with mentions of such forgotten contemporaries as Heywood Broun.) It痴 grand door-slamming fun, with the brothers personalities fully emerging for the first time, and it presages the similarly anarchic courtroom climax in Act Two, where Shelden beautifully dispenses Harpo痴 famous silverware routine.

Diamond writes a fascinating program note detailing how much of the original show existed (not much) and how he fleshed it out, providing us not only with an accurate look at the early Marx Brothers in their transition from weathered vaudevillians to cultural icons, but as authentic a 1920s musical as you池e likely to get, at least until last season痴 delightful Yiddish operetta The Golden Bride returns in July. Thank heaven the form progressed from this scattershot collection of songs, story, and entertainingly meaningless diversions. But as this painstakingly assembled, less-than-flawlessly (except for the brothers) executed I値l Say She Is proves, there痴 life in the old musical model yet.


Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.


I値l Say She Is plays through July 2 at the Connelly Theater, 220 E. 4th St., New York. For tickets, visit ovationtix.com.