BWW Review: Forgotten Marx Bros. Musical I'LL SAY SHE IS; Restored! Revived! Rejoice!
Traditionally, actors who bear at least a modest resemblance to some beloved public figure of the past have found ways to parlay their good fortune into solo play or cabaret act.
Fortunately, Noah Diamond who is a top-shelf Groucho Marx impersonator, also seems to be a dedicated musical comedy archeologist, at least when it comes to a scarcely-remembered 1924 Broadway hit titled I'LL SAY SHE IS, which served as a vehicle for a quartet of brothers who had spent their youth climbing to the top of the vaudeville circuit.
Groucho, Harpo and Chico Marx were well-seasoned thirtysomething funnymen when they decided to take a chance at the legit stage. Their straight-man younger brother, Zeppo, was a lad in his early twenties.
The book and lyrics were by Will B. Johnstone with his brother Tom supplying the music. Both had worked, separately and as a team, on several musicals before this one and, as was customary in the day, their major responsibility would be to come up with some snappy tunes and somehow incorporate the quartet's tried-and-true routines into something resembling a plot.
The Marxes would strongly upgrade their writing staff for their next two Broadway vehicles. George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind penned the books for both THE COCOANUTS and ANIMAL CRACKERS, with Irving Berlin writing the score for the former and Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby cranking out tunes for the latter. While those two have been reasonably preserved by their movie versions, the most that remained, in one piece, of I'LL SAY SHE IS is thirty pages of rehearsal script.
Fortunately, those pages fell into the hands of Diamond, who began an extensive research project to fill in the missing pieces. Newspaper clippings and reviews helped him figure out what routines and songs were used, prompting more research into finding versions of ever-evolving bits.
Program notes for director Amanda Sisk's crisp and buoyant new production utilizing Diamond's handiwork estimate that a third of the book and half the lyrics are of the researcher's informed invention, staying true as possible to the language and conventions of the era. In other words, this is not a greatest hits revisal that finds an excuse for the mirror routine and for Groucho to sing "Lydia, The Tattooed Lady."
The tremendous pleasure to be had enjoying I'LL SAY SHE IS at the Lower East Side's intimate Connelly Theater, which originated as a 19th Century school auditorium, comes from appreciating the restoration of a bit of our cultural history and watching the talented and spirited company diving head-first into the nonsensical frivolity with a joyful admiration of the madcap antics they're recalling.
With what appears to be a modest budget, Joe Diamond's set and Julz Kroboth's costumes charmingly suggest the glamour and glitz of 1920s revues. Shea Sullivan's choreography for a bevy of exuberant showgirls is the kind meant to show off their beauty as well as their footwork.
What passes for a plot begins when a hapless theatre agent (Mark Weatherstone) receives visits from our four heroes, each trying to show off his talents, which coincidentally includes a quartet of Al Jolson impersonations. The kicker is that the entire scene is written in rhyming verse.
But the boys ditch showbiz when they see a newspaper headline about a young and pretty heiress looking to marry the first man who can give her a thrill. The gal's name is Beauty, taken from the expression of the day (and the lyric for the title song), "Isn't she a beauty?" "I'll say she is."
So the rest of the story is a thrill-seeking ride consisting of loosely-connected bits that take us from a high-society mansion, to an opium den, to Central Park and Wall Street, and to the show's most famous scene, where Groucho, as Napoleon, bids farewell to Josephine, while his cohorts play the queen's parade of lovers. In between, there's the requisite harp solo for Harpo, piano trickery for Chico, some love duets for Zeppo and a scene where Groucho courts a wealthy dowager.
Diamond has everything about Groucho Marx at this stage of his career down pat in a performance that feels fresh and spontaneous, particularly when throws out asides to the audience when a joke doesn't exactly leave 'em rolling in the aisles.
Seth Shelden may not be a ringer for Harpo, but he exudes the same puckish pathos and impish charm mimicking the great clown's physical bits. Special kudos to whoever figured out how to do the classic bit where a seemingly endless set of silverware falls out of his sleeve.
Matt Roper is an amusingly dour-faced Chico and Matt Walters does fine work as Zeppo, more of a romantic juvenile than a straight man here.
Although collectively, The Four Marx Brothers are the star attraction, Beauty is actually the leading role and the peppy Melody Jane does a terrific job singing and dancing with great showgirl vitality. Kathy Biehl is just swell singing with classic tones and playing befuddled straightness in the Margaret Dumont prototype role.
Music director and arranger Sabrina Chap plays piano, joined by percussionist Matt Talmage.
Everything about this pint-sized production of I'LL SAY SHE IS leaves you anxious to see what these artists could do with a fuller budget to really recreate the atmosphere of 1924 Broadway. Hopefully there's more to come for this merry historical artifact.