In the first-ever revival of “I’ll Say She Is,” the Marx Brothers’ first-ever Broadway musical, Harpo honks once again; Chico puns, Zeppo courts; and Groucho, cigar in hand, says things like “I’m not so sheepish that you can pull the wool over my eyes.”
In the very first moments of this anarchic show lovingly reconstructed at the newly opened Sheen Center on Bleecker Street as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, a bevy of scantily clad chorus girls, crowned with skyscraping tiaras of pretend-precious metals and plumage, sing:
It’s a miracle
To hear a lyrical
For fans of the Marx Brothers, there is indeed something miraculous about this production. Noah Diamond, who plays Groucho and is the show’s co-producer along with director Travis S.D., has spent years piecing together the original 1924 musical, which was written by playwright and lyricist Will B. Johnstone with music by his brothers Tom and Alexander. No complete script survived, as Diamond writes in a note in the program, and his adaptation is based on existing fragments, contemporary reviews, recorded recollections, and what he calls his “Marxist intuition,” with an assist by musicologist Margaret Farrell, who is Will Johnstone’s great-granddaughter.
The result is a mish-mash – more politely called a revue – of some dozen lovely, old-fashioned songs and countless comic routines strung along the thinnest of plots:
Four men (the Marx Brothers) are looking to break into show business, and one by one audition for an agent (Bob Homeyer) by singing the Al Jolson tune “Swanee”; Harpo (Seth Shelden) whistles it. But the agent has a better idea, showing them a newspaper headline: “Society Woman Craves Excitement.”
The woman’s name is Beauty (Melody Jane), and once they get past her stuffy aunt Ruby Mintworth (Kathy Biehl) and her butler Simpson (C.L. Weatherstone), the men accompany her in her search for thrills on Wall Street, in Central Park, Napoleon’s court (!), an opium den in Chinatown, a downtown courtroom, and Broadway at night.
There is an occasional stab at a story – somebody is murdered at the opium den, for which Beauty is wrongfully accused – but little comes of it, for which nobody is likely to complain: You don’t seek out the Marx Brothers for coherence.
If the acting among the 18 cast members is uneven, there are terrific stalwarts and standouts. As Beauty, Melody Jane is a fine ingénue; Aristotle Stamat makes a suitable Zeppo, the bland, vaguely ethnic, handsome romantic lead; Kathy Biehl is a nearly ideal Margaret Dumont stand-in, with the added perk of her golden-voiced rendition of a ballad entitled Thrill of Love:
All I know from long ago
to now is how I long for…
Just a little bliss at sunset.
Just a little kiss at dawn.
But the thrill of “I’ll Say She Is” is unmistakably that of Diamond’s Groucho imitation and Seth Shelden near-flawless recreations of some of Harpo’s best-known routines – the leg-in-the-arm schtick, the tie-snipping bit, the comic kleptomania, the bottomless-raincoat-pocket gag. He even plays a musical instrument, although it is a saxophone rather than a harp.
Unlike the Marx Brothers’ later shows on Broadway “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” “I’ll Say She Is” was never made into a movie. The producers of the revival bill it as “The Lost Marx Brothers Musical.” It feels a little like the Generic Marx Brothers Musical, an exercise in nostalgia rather than the recovery of a hidden gem. But as presented by Diamond, with direction by Trav S.D., spot-on costumes by Juliann Kroboth, and choreography by Helen Burkett, it’s a delightful exercise indeed. Maybe none of the cracks in “I’ll Say She Is” will replace the Marx Brothers witticisms known around the world, but who can resist a show in which an on-the-nose replica Groucho says
“I’m going to send you to Albany for 20 years”
“Why?” asks the ingénue.
“Capital punishment,” he replies – and then, stepping to the edge of the stage, he says directly to us in a Groucho aside, “You’re not getting your money back.”
I’ll Say She Is is running through August 22nd, but it’s sold out. Surely, it’ll be produced again.