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In his opening night review of the Marx Brothers’ Broadway debut, I’ll Say She Is, at the Casino Theatre on May 19, 1924, Robert Benchley wrote in Life magazine, “Not since sin laid its heavy hand on our spirit have we laughed so loud and so offensively. . . . I’ll Say She Is is probably one of the worst revues ever staged, from the point of view of artistic merit and general deportment. And yet when the Marx Brothers appear, it becomes one of the best.” That pretty much sums up the show’s long-awaited revival, from the husband-and-wife team of Groucho impersonator Noah Diamond and director Amanda Sisk, running at the Connelly Theater in the East Village through July 2. The original production was followed in quick succession by The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, both of which were made into classic films, but I’ll Say She Is languished in a kind of obscurity, never revived, while gaining some notoriety among fans as the “lost” Marx Brothers musical. But through an intense investigation of reviews, photographs, partial scripts, and various people’s personal recollections and writings, Diamond has resurrected the show in true DIY fashion. In the low-budget show, partially funded by fans from around the world, Diamond plays Groucho, with Seth Shelden as Harpo, Matt Roper as Chico, and Matt Walters as Zeppo, performing a comedy featuring original book and lyrics by political cartoonist Will B. Johnstone and music by Tom and Alexander Johnstone. The brothers are looking for jobs, so they bombard the office of theatrical agent Mr. Lee (Mark Weatherup Jr.) with their Al Jolson impressions. At first Mr. Lee wants them out of there, but he eventually shows the crazed quartet a front-page story that declares, “Society Woman Craves Excitement! Beautiful heiress promises her hand, heart, fortune to man who can give her a thrill. She is a victim of suppressed desires. She has complexes because she has never been in love.” So the boys head over to the mansion owned by “dignified dowager” Mrs. Ruby Mintworth (Kathy Biehl), who takes care of her downtrodden niece, Beauty (Melody Jane), who is seeking more out of life. And she certainly finds it when Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo show up. “I’m getting dizzy! / Put me in a tizzy. / Let’s get busy. / Gimme a thrill!” she sings. That’s all the brothers need to try to entertain Beauty — as well as, of course, the audience in the Connelly Theater.
First things first: No one can fully impersonate the Marx Brothers, four unique talents, each with his own special charm. But Diamond, Shelden (who learned how to play the harp for the role), Roper, and Walters do a more-than-acceptable job, even as they’re constrained by a relatively small stage that doesn’t let them fully cut loose. As expected, Diamond, who has been channeling Groucho since he was fourteen, succeeds the best, ripping off the mustachioed Marx Brother’s one-liners with infectious glee. “It’s very difficult to tell sometimes if you’re walking toward me or a horse is walking away,” he says to Chico. When they arrive at the mansion, Ruby (think Margaret Dumont) says, “I am not the woman you’re looking for,” to which Groucho instantly replies, “You can say that again.” He also regularly acknowledges the existence of the audience. When the “Four Horsemen of the Apoplexy” go into Beauty’s reception room, Groucho declares with a sense of the obvious, “Well, we are in the parlor!” then adds, “What a stupid remark that was.” And when he tosses away his toy sword and it slides off the stage, almost hitting someone in the first row, Diamond turns it into a funny running gag. As Benchley pointed out more than ninety years ago, the show stalls during the musical numbers, which not coincidentally happen to be when the brothers are usually offstage. Joe Diamond’s set re-creates the original, looking like a large, colorful birthday cake, with minor markers added as the story ventures into Central Park, the Financial District, an opium den, and a courtroom. But as with the 1924 production, the best scene takes place at Versailles, where Napoleon (Groucho/Diamond) suspects Josephine (Beauty/Jane) of cheating on him. “Napoleon, you said you’d be in Egypt tonight. You promised me the Pyramids and the Sphinx,” Josephine says. “That remains to be seen. As far as I’m concerned, the whole thing sphinx,” a suspicious Napoleon answers, later adding, “When I look into your eyes, I know that you are true to the French Army. I only hope it remains a standing army.” The French bit is a madcap romp with smart and crisp rapid-fire dialogue; it’s also one of the scenes for which Diamond, who just published the companion book Gimme a Thrill: The Story of I’ll Say She Is, the Lost Marx Brothers Musical, and How It Was Found, had the most amount of original material. Much of the rest of I’ll Say She Is feels cobbled together, albeit as a labor of love that will have you forgiving many of its shortcomings. (For example, they never can quite get the curtain to completely close, and there’s a barrier on one side of the stage that makes it difficult for the actors to enter and exit.) But if you take it all in stride, you’re likely to have a fun time at what a 1924 Philadelphia ad called “a fast action girlie musical-dancing-comedy combination.” Marx Brothers fans will enjoy a bonus, recognizing several skits and numerous jokes that ended up in the brothers’ films.