MarxFest – not a socialist symposium but a monthlong celebration of the Marx Brothers – draws to a close May 31. One of the highlights has been a new reconstruction of the comedy legends’ wonderfully titled first Broadway musical, I’ll Say She Is.
This loosely-plotted revue was staged in 1924-25 with numerous musical numbers and comic bits and tropes that became Marx Brothers staples. Unlike more famous productions that followed – The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers – it was never made into a movie. Not only that, the script didn’t survive, so no one can even say for sure how the show went.
Nevertheless, years of hard work by actor and Marx Brothers enthusiast Noah Diamond and several collaborators have produced a reconstruction of I’ll Say She Is which received its first staged reading Friday night, with one more this afternoon. It will become a full production this summer as part of the New York Fringe Festival.
The story, such as it is, is just an excuse for songs, some silly and some sweet, and for lots of the physical and verbal Marx Brothers comedy – crude, clever, bawdy, and zany – that fans to this day know and love from the classic movies. To describe just a few: There’s a long sequence about Napoleon (Groucho, played by Mr. Diamond) and a bed-hopping Josephine. There’s a hypnosis segment: Chico (Robert Pinnock): “Be a dog.” Beauty (Melody Jane): “Ruff ruff.” Chico: “Be a cat.” Beauty: “Meow, meow.” “Be a snake.” “I don’t know how to be a snake.” “It’s like a worm, but more.”
There’s trendy Freudian pop psychology. Beauty, bored with her riches, uninterested in draperies, is desperately seeking a thrill: “I have complexes and suppressed desires!” So, as it turns out, does her prim, aging aunt Ruby Mintworth (Kathy Biehl), only hers burst out in song: “Just a Little Bliss at Sunset.”
And of course there’s Harpo, perfectly played by Seth Shelden, extremely unsuccessfully hiding the fact that he has stolen Mrs. Mintworth’s silver.
The full production promises much more, including, as Diamond told me, “the Apache Dance, the Pygmalion ballet, Harpo and Chico’s ‘tramp ballet,’ and numerous other Harpo routines too elaborate to attempt in a reading. The Fringe production will feature a larger cast, more chorus girls, and a band.” With costumes, enthusiastic singing, suggestive blocking, and hilariously convincing performances, the reading itself gave a good approximation of what the full production has in store. Marx Brothers fans will love it, and even non-fans or the merely Marx-curious will appreciate it from a historical perspective, as it demonstrates not only the popular styles of music and humor of the day but a fine example of the transition period between vaudeville variety shows and fully plotted musical theater.