It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to take on a play that is so associated with particular actors that it is essentially inseparable from them. Taking on the iconic Marx Brothers would seem to be all risk with a low upside.
Except that the Utah Shakespeare Festival has no end of chutzpah and the chops to pull it off.
The Cocoanuts featured all four of the Marx Brothers in lead roles - even the rarely seen Zeppo as the protagonist and straight man Robert Jamison. In addition, there is a goofy (of course) story by George S. Kaufman (see my review of You Can’t Take It With You which we saw earlier this year), and songs by Irving Berlin.
So, how to pull this off? Well, you need your actors to have the skills to imitate the Marx Brothers without it looking like a cheap rip-off. And boy, did they pull it off.
Jim Poulos, John Plumpis, and Tasso Feldman
(Chico, Groucho, and Harpo)
The plot isn’t that important, but here it is: Groucho is Mr. Hammer, the owner of a failing seedy hotel in Miami during the 1920s land boom (which was followed by a crash, of course). His clerk, Jamison (Zeppo) is in love with Polly, the daughter of the wealthy Mrs. Potter. The Potter fortune is coveted by the slimey Harvey Yates, a broke scion of a high society family, and his co-conspirator Penelope. The plan is for Harvey to marry Polly, but she hates him. A conspiracy is hatched to steal Mrs. Potter’s valuable diamond necklace, and have Harvey discover it and win the family’s heart.
Of course, things go wrong. To begin with, Chico and Harpo, a couple of small time con artists, show up at the hotel. Hilarity and chaos follow, of course.
It is no use whatsoever to try to recount all of the many gags, terrible puns, and slapstick situations that fill this play from top to bottom. In addition, a number of the jokes were improvised, and thus different from night to night. My wife saw this play early in the run back in July, and then saw it again with us in September, and she said there were a number of lines which differed, and plenty of new jokes. (In some cases, these were aimed at the Utah luminaries attending, so they were intentionally specific to the performance.)
One in particular that stood out to me occurred when Groucho managed to work the Quadratic Formula into a joke. There were some scattered laughs, at which point Groucho broke the fourth wall and said, “I see there are some math majors in the audience…” And a few of us who paid attention in High School too, I guess.
I do have to tip my hat to John Plumpis, who played Groucho. It was an outstanding performance. On the one hand, you knew it wasn’t the real Groucho, but the voice and the mannerisms were so darn close, it was hard to tell. He also matched the comedic timing so well. In my experience, one of the biggest differences between an amateur play and a truly professional one is just how well the actors can gauge exactly how long to pause after a funny line. It is easy to jump in with the next too early, or look awkward in the interim. The best can make it flow as naturally as possible.
Also amazing was Tasso Feldman as Harpo. I saw Tasso last year playing Charlie in Charlie’s Aunt. In that role, he was a bit overshadowed by Michael Doherty, who played “Babbs” and the faux-aunt. In The Cocoanuts, Feldman is allowed to showcase his talent more freely, and he very nearly stole the show. It was freaky just how well he mimicked all of Harpo’s mannerisms, facial expressions, and more. For a part that does not in fact have any spoken lines, he truly acted the part. If you ever want to understand the difference between speaking and acting, this is a good example. I was blown away.
My kids were introduced to the Marx Brothers at a young age, beginning with A Night At The Opera. I am, after all, trying to raise them right. Of all the plays we planned to see, I think this was the one that four out of the five kids were most looking forward to seeing. (The macabre daughter was most thrilled to see Julius Caesar, because of the higher body count.) In any case, they enjoyed the jokes very much indeed - and I think every year they get more of the bad puns.
I should also mention the music. This is a musical, after all. Irving Berlin is always a pleasure, regardless of the topic. In this case, there were references to the Anvil Chorus and Carmen - jokes that were not lost on this classical musician.
But the very best part was this: not only was the music live and not canned, the musicians were on stage! Yes, there was a small “orchestra,” consisting of five musicians. Piano, drums, upright bass, a guy playing guitar, ukulele, banjo, and typewriter as needed, and a violinist. (Bonus points for that!) They were at the center rear of the stage, and were essentially the hotel’s house band. So you could watch them do their thing. The coolness level for that idea is off the charts.
Because the Orchestra always needs more credit in stage productions. Well done, fellow musicians!
Anyway, we had a great time, and I must commend the Utah Shakespeare Festival for stretching beyond the usual repertoire to find gems such as The Cocoanuts and Charlie’s Aunt. Shakespeare is of course at the heart of what they do, but their commitment to variety shows, and the “other stuff” is so very fun.