Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of I'll Say She Is at The Connelly Theater by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of I'll Say She Is at The Connelly Theater was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

I'll Say She Is
The Lost Marx Brothers Musical
Original Book & Lyrics by Will B. Johnstone
Adapted & Expanded by Noah Diamond
Music by Tom Johnstone
Additional Music by Alexander Johnstone
Directed by Amanda Sisk
Musical Direction & Arrangements by Sabrina Chap
Choreography by Shea Sullivan
Costume Design by Julz Kroboth
The Connelly Theater
220 East 4th Street
New York, New York 10009 
Reviewed 6/5/16 

I'll Say She Is, a revue starring The Marx Brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico & Zeppo), debuted at The Lyric Theatre in Allentown before heading to Philadelphia in May, 1923. After touring for almost a year, the show opened on Broadway at The Casino Theatre on May 19, 1924. It closed on February 7, 1925 after 313 performances. I'll Say She Is was a roaring success and catapulted the Marxes to super stardom. However, unlike their next two Broadway musicals, The Cocoanuts (1925) and Animal Crackers (1928), this show, which included some Marx Brothers routines and musical specialties from their years in Vaudeville, was never made into a movie. The libretto and lyrics were written by Will B. Johnstone, who later co-wrote the classic Marx Brothers films Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), with music by his brother, Tom Johnstone. In 2009, writer and performer Noah Diamond began to research and restore I'll Say She Is, working from Will R. Johnstone's 1923 rehearsal typescript - a thirty-page outline. Other sources used to reconstruct this musical included extant versions of certain scenes; fragments of the Marx Brothers' vaudeville repertoire; other musicals written by the Johnstones; newspaper items which describe and quote from the show; and the recollections of those who saw or participated in the original production. Specific details of the process of reconstructing this revue are included in the book entitled Gimme A Thrill: The Story Of I'll Say She Is, The Lost Marx Brothers Musical, And How It Was Found, written by Noah Diamond and published by BearManor Media in 2016. Diamond's adaptation of I'll Say She Is was seen in 2014 at the New York International Fringe Festival and now a fully staged production has opened Off-Broadway at The Connelly Theater, where it runs at least through July 2, 2016. In Noah Diamond's "Hysterical Note" published in the program, he writes, "Collecting and assembling these puzzle pieces, and filling in the blanks with Marxist intuition, was the project of a lifetime...My contributions represent roughly half the lyrics, and a third of the book...But these interpolations are informed by an immersion in Johnstone and Marx works of the era, and even my material here is full of phrases and ideas straight from the source."

You can purchase a copy of The New York Morning Moon in the lobby of The Connelly Theater before the show for One Dollar. The scandalous headline of that newspaper (dated May 19, 1924) is "Society Woman Craves Excitement!" The subheading reads, "Beautiful Heiress Promises Hand, Heart, Fortune To Man Who Can Give Her A Thrill." It is also suspected that Beauty, the Heiress, is a "victim of suppressed desires." She resides in the Mintworth mansion on Park Avenue, with her aunt, Ruby Mintworth (widow of late industrialist Chester Mintworth), who also admits to having "suppressed desires." The entire show involves various scenes showing efforts by The Marx Brothers' characters and others to give Beauty the thrill she seeks. Her aunt tries to excite her with the prospect of wearing new clothing and choosing new draperies. Beauty tries hypnotism, gambling, a Chinatown Opium Den run by the Mafia, wandering about town as a poor person, hanging out in Central Park, on Wall Street, and on Broadway, and even watching ballet, attending a harp concert, and being falsely arrested and charged with murder - yet nothing seems to do the trick. In the end, Beauty realizes that "Love is the Greatest Thrill of All!" She marries Zeppo, her Aunt marries Groucho, everyone moves in together and apparently lives happily ever after. 

In this production of I'll Say She Is, Noah Diamond is amazing and extremely believable as Groucho. He is your host in this revue and often breaks the 4th wall when a joke is particularly bad or causes you to groan out loud. He will tell you, "No Refunds", "Don't Come To Me With You're Problems", "Kindly Submit Your Complaints In Writing", or may simply tell the audience, "We'll Let You Go In A Little While". The audience may have been promised "refined and civilized entertainment" but what they end up getting is wordplay, satire, and improvisational comedy. In the Napoleon skit at Versailles, where Groucho plays Napoleon and Beauty portrays Josephine, Groucho suspects his wife is cheating on him with Alphonse, Francois, and Gaston, who often frequent her bedchambers. When Napoleon unexpectedly appears, Josephine asks why he is not at the front. He responds, "My horse overslept and I didn't want to nag him." He also reported, "I'm off to make Russia safe for French kissing" and said, "The Russians are in full retreat and I'm right in front of them". Having returned from Hither and Yon, he stated, "Hither is not bad, but Yon is terrible." Looking at Josephine, Napoleon says, "When I look at your face, I know you are loyal to the French Army. I only hope it remains a standing army." When Groucho plays the prosecutor in Beauty's murder trial, he promises to send her "to Albany for 20 years." When she objects and asks why, he responds, "Capital Punishment!" In the "Backwards Cinderella Story," Beauty asks Groucho who is dressed as a Fairy, "Are you my Fairy Godmother?" Groucho responds saying, "No, I am just your regular Union Fairy, but yesterday, I was the Staten Island Fairy." He goes on and says, "Would you believe they won't let me use the bathroom in North Carolina!" 

Seth Shelden makes a very likeable and talented Harpo. Great wig. Pleasant personality. Good interactions with his fellow "brothers" and yes, he does play the harp during one of the scenes. Chico (whose name is pronounced Chick-o because of all the Chicks (U.K. - Birds) he used to chase off-stage) spoke with an Italian accent. Matt Roper was consistently entertaining in the role. He, too, had plenty of funny lines in the show. Beauty had asked all The Marx Brothers characters to retire to the parlor "to draw lots" to see who would have the first shot to woo her. Chico's response, "Maybe we draw a little first and see how it goes." As one of Josephine's suitors, Chico says, "I'll marry you." She objects saying, "But what about Napoleon?" His response, "I'll marry him too - he has money!" During one scene, Groucho says to Chico, "It's hard to tell if you're walking toward me or if a horse is walking away from me." Matt Walters plays Zeppo, the handsome brother who wins the heart of Beauty in the end. He is charismatic and has a strong stage presence. Melody Jane as Beauty and Kathy Biehl as her opera singing Aunt Ruby are both perfectly cast for their respective roles.  

Are you looking for beautiful women and elaborate costumes? Look no further than I'll Say She Is. Ten talented dancers appear in many well-choreographed numbers wearing matching costumes and headdresses. My favorite numbers in the musical included "This Broadway Song", "I'll Say She Is" ("I'll say she is the woman I adore. Miss 1924"; "Ain't she a beauty? I'll say she is!"), "Wall Street Blues", "I'm Saving You For A Rainy Day", "The Dream Ship", and "Only You". Dante Adela and Peyton Lustig were both amazing ballet dancers in the Apache Dance and when portraying Pygmalion & Galatea. Did I mention there was tap dancing? In addition, when Harpo was accused of stealing silverware from the Mintworth mansion, a Police Officer declared he could not possibly be guilty because of his innocent looking face. All during this time, Harpo was "accidentally" dropping on the floor knives, forks and spoons from the bottom of the sleeve of his jacket. This went on and on until finally Groucho, who had a funny expression on his face, was asked why? His response, "I can't understand what's delaying the coffee pot!" And yes, a coffee pot appeared. 

I'll Say She Is is the most successful project The Marx Brothers ever did on stage and what was thought to be lost forever, has been given a new life thanks to the efforts of Noah Diamond and to the talents of an extraordinary group of performers. Sure the book could use a little more tweaking and the transitions between scenes made a bit smoother but none of that matters. The spirit of the original revue has been revived and Marx Brothers fans the world over now have the opportunity to see this lost musical. You can even purchase and wear a large fake nose while viewing the production. Want to take home Napoleon's sword? You can buy that, too! 

Noah Diamond's Hysterical Note in the program ends with this observation, "The story (a bored heiress looks for thrills) is paradigmatic revue stuff, a clothesline on which to hang songs, sketches, and specialties. Yet in the context of recent experience, even the plot of I'll Say She Is seems meaningful to me. This is a show about the thrill of love: love of laughter, of music, of the theatre, of showbiz and New York and the Jazz Age and the Marx Brothers. Beauty's search for excitement isn't just an excuse to dress up as Napoleon and run around the stage. It's also a reminder to enjoy things, to participate, and to connect with others."

I highly recommend you see I'll Say She Is at The Connelly Theater sometime before July 2, 2016. This is a historic production of a previously lost Marx Brothers Musical. How many opportunities will you get a see a show like that? Whether you are familiar with the Marx Brothers or not, you will leave the show with a new appreciation for their sharp and bizarre sense of humor that satirizes high society and the absurdity of many human interactions. It's a trip down Mammary Lane! There are performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets cost $30.00 for adults and $25.00 for seniors and children under the age of 18. For reservations, call 212-352-3101. To order tickets online, visit www.illsaysheis.com 

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