This review of I'll Say She Is at The Connelly Theater was written by Dr. Thomas G. Jacoby 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
I'll Say She Is, now in limited performance at The Connelly Theater on East 4th Street, is no ordinary musical revival. This is the musical that allowed the Marx Brothers to transition from their careers in Vaudeville to the Broadway Stage. The musical, written by the Johnstone Brothers, Will and Tom, was lost to posterity, but has been lovingly re-created and adapted by Noah Diamond.
As early musicals go, it's a relatively typical series of comic sketches, with musical numbers interspersed. The plot concerns Beauty, bored with her Park Avenue existence, seeking thrills and, in the end, finding that "love is the greatest thrill of all." This allows for great flexibility in production, and indeed, there have been changes in the order of the sketches since the original. The suitors competing for Beauty take her to Wall Street, Central Park, Broadway, an Opium Den, and on a flight of fancy to Versailles, which allows Groucho to play Napoleon, one of his more beloved roles.
Whenever one undertakes this type of historic labour of love, there are several inherent dangers, especially when taking on a sacred entity like the Marx Brothers. The question that needs to be asked is: just because this can be done, should it be done? In the case of I'll Say She Is, the answer is yes. One-liners like Beauty describing her dowager aunt as her "fire extinguisher" and repeatedly referencing her "suppressed desires" are universal themes, and thus, remain timely. What youthful virgin isn't seeking thrills? In addition, the relatively mild humour of the 1920s easily meets the politically-correct standards of today. Songs like "The Wall Street Blues" could be considered anthems for any American generation. The excellent cast does superb work as an ensemble, and there's the delightful and unapologetic inclusion of various hidden talents of the cast members in the sketches and numbers: a harp solo, impressive trumpet/bugle work, balletic interludes, and a piano duet.
That's a lot to pack into two acts of just over an hour each but the cast keeps it moving. The very few dated references such as "he's a Horn and Hardartite" are offset with modern references, like Groucho in drag saying, "They won't let me use the bathroom in North Carolina." The only piece that perhaps goes over the audience's collective head is "Glimpses Of The Moon", which appears to be a parody of earlier (pre-1924) crooner ballads that overuse the whole "moon/June/soon" rhyming scheme. It's cute and funny today but must have been absolutely hysterically funny for the audience of the time, since they were all familiar with the type of schmaltzy ballad being spoofed.
Special mention should be made of Kathy Biehl (Ruby Mintworth), whose solos in "Thrill Of Love" and "Glimpses Of The Moon" demonstrate an awesome talent, and Corrado Alicata, whose comedic charisma nearly steals several scenes. Amplification issues rendered some of Melody Lane's (Beauty) notes painfully shrill, but with any luck, this will be corrected in subsequent performances. An example of Broadway archaeology, performed by a committed and talented cast, I'll Say She Is is a wonderful way to spend a few hours lost in an idealised bygone era.