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Theatre in Review: I'll Say She Is (Connelly Theatre)

Melody Jane, Noah Diamond. Photo: Stefan Timphu

Let us pause to consider the persistence of Groucho Marx. Only yesterday, I read a piece by the Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens, in which she noted that her kids considered some of her favorite films from the '80s and '90s -- Back to the Future, Big, and A League of Their Own among others -- to be hopelessly antediluvian in their attitudes. I have no doubt that she is correct -- and yet, there I was, at the Connelly Theatre, seeing a revival of Marx Brothers bauble from 1924, with an audience that had a significant complement of pre-adolescents, and Noah Diamond, the actor playing Groucho, was slaying -- with the loudest laughter coming from the kids in the house. The young man on my right, who looked to be about eleven, was enjoying himself mightily. That Diamond scored by impersonating a performer whose heydays -- on Broadway and in movies of the '20s and '30s and as a game show host in the '50s -- are as good as eons away for audience members better acquainted with the Disney Channel is, in my opinion, nothing less than remarkable.

Then again, why not? I've seen several Groucho impersonators in my time and Diamond is one of the best. With the application of the eyebrows, the glasses, and the greasepaint mustache, he's a dead ringer for Groucho, and he has captured that reedy, insinuating voice that levels logic and blows solemnity to smithereens. He dashes around the stage in that familiar dropping-camel walk, relentlessly delivering one-liners like one of those automated pitching machine in a batter's cage. Entering dressed as a fairy godfather, he announces, "Yesterday I was the Staten Island Ferry." Comforting the heroine, he says, "Are you crying, or have you been following the election?" Taking over a courtroom, he announces to a defendant, "I'm going to send you to Albany for twenty years." The reason? "Capital punishment." Diamond is fast on his feet and has mastered the art of the Marxian ad lib: At the performance I attended, the curtain failed to fully part for the opening scene, causing some frantic stagehands to pull it back and drape it. A couple of minutes later, Diamond entered and, looking right at us, said, "The tickets cost thirty dollars. You didn't expect the curtain to open all the way, did you?"

Adding to the fun are Matt Roper, who plays Chico, and Seth Shelden, who takes on Harpo. Roper captures Chico's thick accent and surly, faintly menacing with a laugh line, which, more often than not involves mangling the English language. In a courtroom, Groucho says, "Maybe she could file an affidavit." "Well," Chico brightly replies, "affidavit is better than none." (A critic for Time Magazine once called Chico the Italian Defamation League, for good reason.) Although not a gifted pianist, he manages a fair approximation of Chico's trigger-finger piano style. Selden is even better, beeping his horn, making demonic faces, chasing after blonde chorines, producing bizarre objects (including a plastic bag of goldfish -- and making beautiful music with his harp. He partners with Groucho on a signature gag from the film of Animal Crackers: Harpo, having been accused of the theft of Park Avenue matron's silver, is suddenly acquitted. A male accuser shakes his hand, and a cascade of cutlery streams out of Harpo's jacket sleeve. After what feels like several minutes, Groucho muses, "I can't understand what's delaying that coffee pot." Do I have to tell you what happens next?

That we should be seeing I'll Say She Is at all seems the height of improbability. The show that marked the Marx Brothers' transition from vaudeville to Broadway, it is the only one of their three musicals not to be created by top Broadway names like George S. Kaufman. Even by the loose standards of Twenties'-era tuners, I'll Say She Is a giddy, slapdash piece of construction, loyal to nothing but the next laugh or musical number. The heroine, a society girl known as Beauty is in desperate need of "a thrill." (It will give you an idea of the show's frivolous nature that this is front-page news, seemingly discussed by everyone in New York.) Somehow -- don't ask me how -- she hooks up with the Marxes, including Zeppo, who provides her with romantic interest, and heads off in search of said thrill. The pit stops include Wall Street, where, among other things, a young lady known as the Fairy of Wall Street performs a dance called "The Tragedy of Gambling;" Central Park, where Pygmalion and Galatea show up for a specialty dance; the Court at Versailles -- well, it's a dream sequence -- where Groucho plays Napoleon ("The Russian army is in retreat and I'm right in front of them!"), and an opium den, where a gangster annihilates the chorus with a machine gun -- not the funniest gag this week. Among the stranger offerings is a number titled "The Inception of Drapery," in which Beauty's Aunt Ruby tries to distract her from her problems by singing the praises of fabric patterns. This effort fails, leading someone comment, "Sometimes even draperies are not enough." At times, it's difficult to separate the intentional from the unintentional laughs.

How much of this due to Will B. Johnstone (and his brother Tom, who composed the score) is difficult to tell. The script has been restored, after a fashion, by Diamond and the show's director, Amanda Sisk. All they could find was a kind of treatment, indicating which bits of business went where. (I assume the score is authentic; this is the only possible explanation for "The Inception of Drapery.") They pieced together what they could and borrowed gags from other Marx Brothers properties. If the result is something of a synthetic, it feels right, and there's no question that they have stayed true to the loose-limbed, anything for a laugh ethos of pre-Show Boat Broadway musicals.

It's also true that, in terms of their budget, they are stretched to the limit. Mounting a musical with a cast of twenty in the Connelly Theatre, under the terms of contract prevails there, is either an act of vaulting ambition or a major folly. No set designer is credited, which probably explains the garish, multi-level construction that serves as a kind of unit set. The costume designer, Julz Kroboth, has seemingly done her best to allocate her resources where they count the most -- and she has come up with some amusing inventions, including chorus girl headdresses that look like punchbowls. (That aforementioned Fairy of Wall Street looks rather like the showgirl on the old Follies poster.) Still, the overall result looks as if it was pulled together from many sources without concern for the overall effect. Tom Bibla's lighting is fairly basic and Richard Konert's sound is often disconcertingly loud -- although, admittedly, the acoustics at the Connelly aren't the greatest. Show like I'll Say She Is depended to a certain degree on making a visual splash -- something that is beyond this production's resources.

Still, the laughs never stop, and, under Sisk's pacey direction, the two-and-a-half hours breeze by. Her handling of the Versailles scene, which is pure bedroom farce, is perfectly timed. Melody Jane is affable as Beauty, throwing herself into the action with total conviction, and admirably holding her own as the straight woman in one madcap scene after another. Matt Walters is handsome and sings well as Zeppo. Kathy Biehl is a Margaret Dumont-ish tower of dignity as Aunt Ruby, although she lacks Dumont's cheerfully flustered presence, with its slight undertone of panic. (Groucho always claimed that Dumont didn't get the jokes and, in the films, she often looks as if she has no idea where the scene is headed.) The bouncy, unmemorable songs get a fair hearing and Shea Sullivan provides a couple of fun tap routines. And once again we are reminded of the brilliance of the Marxian point of view. During that Versailles scene, a young lady trumpeter blows out a piece of the Marseillaise. "The Mayonnaise!", cries Groucho as Napoleon. "The army must be dressing!" The art of Dada is alive and well on East Fourth Street these days. -- David Barbour

(20 June 2016)

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