A clerk at a Florida resort hotel during the 1920s property boom leaps out from behind his desk and joins in a lively production number. The villainess in an engagement con on a wealthy mother and daughter leads a line of dancers doing the Charleston.
And all the while, three zanies—one silent, one humorously challenged in English and the other a loquacious hotel manager on the skids—slice, dice and shred the lovely fabric of a period Irving Berlin musical, their playground to burlesque.
The Marx Bros. in El Cerrito? Well, it’s not the first time. The musical that became their second Hollywood feature, Animal Crackers, was successfully staged a year ago by Contra Costa Civic Theater, and now, in a backward glance, Animal Crackers’ predecessor from Hollywood, and their second Broadway hit, The Cocoanuts, is up and running at Contra Costa Civic Theatre.
By the late ’20s or so, the Marx Bros. (originally five, with Gummo and Zeppo), who had started decades before as kids in vaudeville, couldn’t get bookings on the circuit. They decided on a long shot: financing their own musical comedy revue—something they could comically work over with their own brand of improvised mayhem—in Brooklyn, hoping it would attract attention and bring the press—and producers—across the river from Manhattan.
The ploy worked and the Brothers’ career took off, on Broadway, then in Hollywood. Most people know them through later films, like Night at the Opera, where the Brothers take center stage. But The Cocoanuts is a good way to catch how they made their big breakthrough as the wild comic team getting around and tearing down the mannered edifice of musical comedy.
And with the directorial hand of Kate Culbertson (who is now in the artistic chair at CCCT as Mark Manske, successor to CCCT’s founder, the late Louis Flynn, is on hiatus), what could easily be an exercise in academia, a mere museum piece—an Irving Berlin period musical, book by the great George Kaufman—flowers on a community stage in El Cerrito, with splendid songs and production numbers, first rate (and often sumptuous) costuming by Helen Slomowitz (whose historical sense is always on the mark) and a perky jazz quartet (piano, Peter Ruszel’s bass, trumpeter Brian Montone and Mary Hickox on violin) swinging away on their elevated bandstand, above the hotel lobby, led by Joe Simiele from the keyboard.
The cast—about 20 in all, counting the choruses of bellhops and hotel guests—brings their own various talents into the mix, with particularly good performances by R. Martin Newton as desk clerk Jamisen (Zeppo’s role originally) and Nan Ayers in the Margaret Dumont role of Mrs. Potter (amorously scheming Groucho’s society matron foil), as well as first rate romantic ingenues (Benjamin Scott and especially Jillian Seagrave, who do Berlin’s big hit “Always” in front of an enormous travel poster of Florida in Dayglo colors that drops from the flies) and Greg Milholland and (again, the ladies) Jessica Kiely in particular as hissable evil schemers.
There’s even a well-rendered Feydeau-esque door slamming scene as the action—and laughs—revolve from one hotel room to another, and Alex Shafer makes his mark as stern lawman Hennessey, who loses it in a silly, sung encounter with the Brothers, sadly warbling “I want my shirt!” to the operatic music from Carmen.
The ne’er-do-well trio of Groucho, Harpo and Chico are played with brio by Timothy Beagley, Amy Nielson (who also did the stellar choreography) and Tom Reardon. It’s almost impossible to render the peculiar improvised anarchy of Marx Bros. “staging” (a famous George Kaufman anecdote has him excusing himself from a chat in the wings during a show with the excuse “I thought I heard one of my lines”), which reputedly was quite tame in the wildest of their films compared to their stage shows.
Nielson has something of Harpo’s sweet innocence, but none of his ferocity; Reardon tries out some un-Chicoesque shuffles sans rimshots to up the burlesque ante, and Beagley is a bit too sanguine (and tuneful) as Groucho. Dare it be said?—they’re a bit too goy. Stars, not outsiders. More screwballs than maniacs.
But the final scene, the Spanish costume ball—again, with splendid costuming by Slomowitz and Hennessey’s comic turn to “Toreador,” et al, so different than in the movie—comes about as close as anyone’s likely to get, especially the wild tango number, with crazy lyrics, as Groucho beats up on the long-suffering Mrs. Potter with his ultra-eccentric dancing that seems more like bumper cars. Ayers comes out smelling like a crumpled rose, and Beagley shines with moves more Upper West Side Manhattan, sub-Harlem, than Buenos Aires—unless it’s The Pampas ... Yes; Groucho could’ve said that.
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays through March 2 at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre, 951 Pomona Ave., El Cerrito.