Monday, March 31, 2014

The Cocoanuts: Marx Brothers Redux at OSF

Harpo (Brent Hinkley), Chico (John Tufts) and Groucho (Mark Bedard) in The Cocoanuts (Photo: Jenny Graham)

When The Marx Brothers came to Hollywood in the late twenties, their first two movie projects were adaptations of hit musical comedies they’d starred in on Broadway, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival had a big success with Animal Crackers two years ago, so this season they've included The Cocoanuts in their schedule, and it’s driving audiences into a state of sublime lunacy. I had a good time at Animal Crackers, though it was a bit of a mess. (Friends report that as the run went on it grew crazier and more unhinged.) But you’d have to be a curmudgeon to register a complaint about The Cocoanuts, which Mark Bedard has adapted from the 1925 script by George S. Kaufman and (uncredited in the OSF program) Morrie Ryskind, with songs by Irving Berlin.

Like Animal Crackers, the silly but serviceable plot of The Cocoanuts circles around an attempted theft by scoundrels that threatens to wreck the romantic aspirations of the juvenile and the ingénue (to use the musical-comedy parlance of the era). The setting is a resort called Cocoanut Beach in the aftermath of the 1920s Florida land boom, when the owners of no-longer-desirable properties were struggling to find ways to get rid of them. Robert Jamison (Eduardo Placer), the clerk at a dilapidated hotel, is in love with a debutante named Polly Potter (Jennie Greenberry) whose snobby mother (K.T. Vogt) doesn’t approve of the match. His only chance at winning over Mrs. Potter is to sell his designs for turning an abandoned property into a glamorous rental. But her marital choice for her daughter, a slickster named Harvey Yates (Robert Vincent Frank), and Yates’s pal Penelope Martin (Kate Mulligan), steal Mrs. Potter’s jewels and, when they’re about to be caught, frame Robert for the crime. (The story line is a little less convoluted than that of Animal Crackers, which involves authentic and fake paintings.) It’s a credit to director David Ivers and to the ensemble that we still care about the plot after the hotel proprietor, Mr. Hammer (Bedard, channeling Groucho) and his two pals, the scam artists Harpo (Brent Hinkley) and Chico (John Tufts), have stomped through it, wreaking havoc and leaving their footprints all over it.

The Marx Brother in The Cocoanuts (1929)
Robert, of course, is the Zeppo role – the colorless romantic lead. But Placer, the only one of the four actors in the Marx Brothers parts who didn’t also appear in OSF’s Animal Crackers, has far too much personality to fade into the background, plus he can dance. He and Greenberry enliven all their scenes, so the musical doesn’t dip whenever Bedard, Hinkley and Tufts – all of whom are hilarious – are offstage. The other performer who reprises her performance from Animal Crackers is K.T. Vogt, impersonating Margaret Dumont, and though I wasn’t wild about her the last time around, she’s grown into the role. The uniformly excellent cast also includes David Kelly as a detective who gets his own novelty song in the second act (“The Tale of a Shirt”) and a winning trio (Katie Bradley, Miles Fletcher and Erin O’Connor) who pop up in many of the numbers to add close harmony.

The shows that Kaufman and Ryskind fashioned as vehicles for the Marxes are maybe two steps up from vaudeville, though the dialogue, which presumably Groucho and Chico embellished, often rises to the level of the best hard-boiled comedies from the period, The Front Page and Chicago and Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime. Ivers and the performers retain the vaudevillian spirit during extended routines – one involves Hammer, Chico and Harpo scrambling through the audience – that get funnier the longer they go on. The same spirit shines through the vastly entertaining musical numbers, which Jaclyn Martin choreographed. (Gregg Coffin is the musical director; the lively band of five sits behind Richard Hay’s pleasing set, usually visible to the audience, and in one inspired number, “Lucky Boy,” they join the company downstage.) Berlin’s score isn’t among his best, but it’s tuneful, and the OSF version wisely restores the best song, the ballad “Always,” which was cut before the original production reached New York – and then became a standard. Martin and the cast have so much fun with the score that it feels mingy to protest that it isn’t up to Berlin’s later, more seasoned accomplishments. There’s a tango, “Tango Melody,” performed by the ensemble in Spanish-themed costume-ball outfits that represent the best of designer Meg Neville’s output for the show. (She’s less successful with Jennie Greenberry’s other costumes, which is a shame because the actress is sleekly beautiful.) And there’s an eleven-o’clock number called “Why Do You Want to Know Why?” – another interpolation – led by John Tufts that has no apparent place in the musical except to extend the audience’s enjoyment. In it the actors tap on a table with glasses and their fists as if they were playing a children’s game while the tempo accelerates. It’s sheer delight. So is the entire production.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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