by Martin Denton · August 12, 2014
The pull-quote possibilities are just too easy: endless variations of "Is this the most fun musical comedy of the season? I'LL SAY IT IS."
But when a pull-quote tells the truth, I think it's okay to compose one, right?
So, cutting to the chase (as if I hadn't kind of already): I'll Say She Is is sheer delight, a clear and obvious landmark of the 2014 FringeNYC festival, and an absolute triumph for all involved, especially director Trav S.D. and adapter/expander/star Noah Diamond. Full disclosure: I know both of these gentlemen quite well, and in fact I seem to recall that they met (perhaps for the very first time) in my living room. So take everything I say with a grain of salt. But buy tickets to I'll Say She Is anyway, because--unless you really dislike the Marx Brothers, or glamorous chorus girls, or the kind of gossamer fizzy froth (if that's not too mixed-up a metaphor) that was musical theater in the 1920s--you are surely going to have a grand time at this delicious confection of a show.
I'll Say She Is is the lost Marx Brothers musical comedy. It premiered on Broadway in 1924 and was a huge hit and solidified the brothers' stardom; but unlike the two musicals that followed it (The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers), it was never filmed; instead it seemed to disappear without a trace. That is, until Noah Diamond took it into his head to rebuild the show from the ground up. When he first told me about the project, some years ago, it was more or less a quixotic Mount Everest-ish labor of love: to reconstruct a lost script from the original librettist's outline, assorted and sundry theater reviews, recorded versions of classic Marx Brothers sketches, etc. Then when Mr. S.D. came on board, the actual staging of the thing became more of a reality, and now, well, here it is.
The new book that Noah has crafted, hewing closely to the original, concerns a young society girl named Beauty who--to the consternation of her Margaret Dumont-esque Aunt Ruby--announces that she is in search of the man who can thrill her, with the lucky winner receiving her adoration and fortune. The men who answer her advertisement are...Zeppo, Chico, Groucho, and Harpo. And thus what in other hands might have been a run-of-the-mill retread of an Irene or a Sally became instead an anarchic blend of vaudeville, revue, and carefree musical comedy.
Trav S.D. has savvily directed the show the way they did in the old days (and he would know, being an expert on vaudeville and all). He's cast it with a collection of outsized personages and, while fitting the Marx personas onto the four gentlemen who play them, also found the strengths of each of his performers and showcased all to best advantage. Melody Jane as Beauty is a pert, forthright, zany heroine with a big voice and a lovely visage. Kathy Biehl as the dour dowager sings in operatic style and plays foil, very sportingly, to Groucho and occasionally others. C.L. Weatherstone gets at least a couple of delightful deadpan moments as the butler, Simpson, and later more uninhibitedly as the gangland hood who introduces Beauty to the Chinatown Underworld.
And then we have the four new Marxes. Aristotle Stamat, sturdily handsome and just a wee bit mischievous, is Zeppo, who, as we know, has the least showy role in the quartet. He's just fine. Robert Pinnock is a robust Chico, selling the bad puns we're expecting with bravado and delivering the occasional double take with panache. Seth Shelden is the mad naif Harpo in spades, whether hooking his leg under this or that unsuspecting arm or dashing wildly after a pack of beautiful girls. (Did I forget to mention the beautiful girls? The chorus, choreographed by Helen Burkett of The World Famous Pontani Sisters fame, consists of eight art-deco-clad ladies, who perform with sassy high style.)
Anchoring the show, as he must, is Noah Diamond as Groucho, embodying the classic character to what feels like perfection.
The silly unfamiliar material--songs by Will B. Johnstone and Tom Johnstone, with additional material by Alexander Johnstone; the book scenes around Beauty and her giddy quest for thrills; the eye-filling dances--are splendidly entertaining. And the familiar Marx Brothers gags and routines--the classic Napoleon sketch, a card game where Harpo deals and Chico kibbitzes, Groucho's constant asides--all land perfectly because the company has entirely nailed the style and rhythm of this material and of these personalities.
Your FringeNYC ticket budget simply will not bring more bang for the buck than this astonishingly sumptuous indie theater endeavor. I couldn't be prouder to boast that I know the guys behind this success, and I don't care who says I lack objectivity. See it anyway.
Will there be a bright future for this show? I'll say there will.