There are so many things to enjoy about “I’ll Say She Is,” the revived and adapted production of the 1924 Marx Brothers musical revue, that it’s easy to overlook those aspects of the show that don’t quite work.
Now at the Connelly Theater in the East Village, this creation of Noah Diamond, who plays Groucho with exuberance and perfect timing, originally was produced at the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival. While the show still has a lot of the DIY charm of many Fringe projects, this off-off-Broadway production boasts lots of fancy costumes, a live band, and a wonderful contingent of tapping and singing chorines, some of whom play brass instruments with precision and verve. Broadway impresario Flo Ziegfeld would be proud.
“I’ll Say She Is” introduced the Marx Brothers, already stars of vaudeville, to Broadway, but unlike their other Broadway musical hits, “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” it was never turned into a movie, and therefore it was forgotten. A scholar of the Brothers, Diamond found the original 1923 rehearsal typescript, expanded it with bits of the Marx Brothers’ vaudeville act and other musical pieces written by the original composer and lyricist Tom and Will Johnstone, as well as newspaper descriptions of the 1924 production. The result is a zany and delightful reminder of the anarchic spirit the Marx Brothers brought to American entertainment and their deeper subversion of staid bourgeois society. Considered comic geniuses, the New York City-born brothers’ films are among the top 100 film comedies, right up there with those of Charlie Chaplin.
The show has a plot of sorts: wealthy socialite Beauty (Melody Jane) is bored with her life of luxury and is looking for thrills. The four Marx Brothers show up at her stuffy aunt’s house to help her out — and steal as much silver as they can stash in Harpo’s coat. Beauty goes on to seek thrills on Wall Street, in Central Park, on Broadway at night, in an opium den in Chinatown, and so on. This thin storyline is really a contrivance to present different skits set in various locales, including Napoleon’s court, with the odd entertainment — an apache dance, a ballet segment, musical interludes by Harpo and a little girl — thrown in to keep the audience amused. In the mid 1920s, book musicals had not yet become the norm, and this show illustrates how much fun those earlier shows could be, and also shows off the skill of Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the era. The songs here are witty and melodic, not always the case with contemporary musicals. Diamond gets some of the credit here too, writing some of the lyrics.
The Marx Brothers were a unique comedy troupe who developed their stage characters over years, so it doesn’t seem quite fair to pass judgment on actors playing them. Diamond does an excellent Groucho, and Matt Roper recreates the charmingly disreputable Chico with confidence. Harpo is the most difficult to capture, and Seth Shelden catches his aura of innocent mischief though not his dancer’s grace. Matt Walters makes a suave Zeppo, the romantic lead of the piece.
Whenever I see a “small” show like this, I’m reminded of the extraordinary depth of talent floating around the New York theater scene. There are so many wonderful actors, singers, dancers, musicians, designers, choreographers, directors, all aching to make a show. “I’ll Say She Is” features a classic tribute to the stage life, which seems particularly appropriate.
I saw the show early in previews so there is plenty of time to tighten the pacing and trim some numbers that seem to go on too long. By now, the curtain should move smoothly and the stagehands would have figured out how to switch sets seamlessly.
Even with its rough spots, “I’ll Say She Is” is an exceptionally entertaining show, and a testament to the wild energy and joy the Marx Brothers brought all of us.