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I’ll Say She Is: Theater review by David Cote
Seems New York is big enough for two archaeological digs into 1920s Broadway hits. Uptown at the Music Box, writer-director George C. Wolfe has done a remarkable de- and reconstruction of the seminal African-American musical Shuffle Along. Now, 41 blocks south and on a comparatively tiny budget, a gang of chorines, clowns and pit players has raised the antic, anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers in a splendidly daffy revival of I’ll Say She Is. Chances are you’re totally unfamiliar with the title. But if you are, Groucho once cracked: “If you’ve heard this story before, don’t stop me, because I’d like to hear it again.”
Viewed by Marxologists as the show that put Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo on the road to Hollywood (their next two musical shows were turned into movies), I’ll Say She Is opened at the Casino Theatre in 1924, running nearly nine months. Like the vast majority of tuners from that decade, it was an amiable farrago of Ziegfeld Follies–type eye candy, slapstick and Tin Pan Alley songs, strung together by the thinnest of plotlines (here, a society gal hungry for a “thrill”). The big difference with I’ll Say She Is was, of course, its stars. The Marx Brothers had been trouping in vaudeville for nearly 20 years, amassing a uniquely brilliant skill set: the distinct goofball personas, Harpo’s virtuosic plucking, Chico’s pianistic pyrotechnics and Groucho’s genius for one-liners and meta-humor. When their shticks crossed, it was comedy gold.
Amanda Sisk’s scruffy but lovable production benefits from oodles of hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show enthusiasm and a remarkably talented foursome as the Marxes. Noah Diamond (who adapted and expanded the book) makes for a more youthful but hilarious Groucho. Seth Shelden’s blissful Harpo plays Debussy on the harp, accompanies Chico (Matt Roper) on piano and channels the loony icon with utter sweetness. Nostalgic yet fresh, any whiff of mothball about the material is wafted away on gales of laughter.—David Cote
Connelly Theater (Off Broadway). Original book and lyrics by Will B. Johnstone. Adapted and expanded by Noah Diamond. Music by Tom Johnstone. Directed by Amanda Sisk. With Noah Diamond, Seth Shelden, Matt Roper, Matt Walters, Melody Jane. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.
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