Regional Reviews: San Francisco
42nd Street Moon Presents a Lost Gem of the 1970
My own personal relationship with the Marx Brothers and the crazy opening of the 1970 musical on Broadway cannot be ignored. I worked with Groucho, Harpo and Chico on one of their last appearances on the screen. The trio was hired to appear in a segment of the Warner Brothers/Irvin Allen 1957 film The Story Of Mankind which tanked as soon as it came out. I found the guys wonderful to work with and they kept everyone on the set laughing with their off-camera antics. I later became friends with Chico, who could never hang on to money because he loved the horses and women.
Arthur Marx had been trying to find backers for a musical based on the five brothers' early life with their mother Minnie, the Mama Rose of the family. He secured composer Larry Grossman and lyricist Hal Hackady to write the score. He also talked to Shelley Winters, who had a fair voice, about playing the pushy Minnie. It took Arthur several years to gather the money, with Ms. Winters coming on board toward the end. There was talk the musical should premiere in Los Angeles where it would gain some recognition from the film colony. However, it was agreed it should open in New York.
There were sixty-four previews at the Imperial and almost every night songs were put in and taken out. The whole production was in turmoil, and the producers changed the second act several times to make it more organized. Robert Fisher and even Groucho were brought in to help with the book. Directors were switched, finally settling on Stanley Prager, a good comedian in his own right, trying to get a cohesive script, especially for the troublesome second act. Ms. Winters was becoming very difficult as she began to realize she could not carry this big musical. There was over $800,000 invested - that was big money in 1970.
Minnie Boy's opened at the beginning of March 1970 to so-so reviews. By the time I had seen the production three times, (two previews and one frozen production) I could see it was not going anywhere. The main problem was Ms. Winters. She just could not handle the role, even with some terrific young men playing the Marx Brothers. Lewis J. Stadlen (Max in The Producers) made his Broadway debut as Groucho, and you could see he was going to be a great comic actor. The score was bright and sunny, but it really did not have a good standard tune to keep it alive. It lost over $750,000 in its brief run of 80 performances.
Minnie's Boys sank into oblivion with only an occasional concert version of the zany original. The Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera did a full production in 1972, and there have been several concert versions at east coast colleges. The last concert version was a one night only charity recital at the New London Theatre on June 21, 1981, with the British cast of Oklahoma! taking over the roles and Marie Friedman playing Minnie.
Greg MacKellan, artistic director of the 42nd Street Company, wanted to present this melodic and zany comedy for those who love the Marx Brothers and are aficionados of lost musicals. He has succeeded in giving the fans a bright, fun production with five very talented young men playing Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zippo and Gummo. Greg also has secured one of the best actress/comedians to play Minnie Marx. This is an ingratiating production with some good lyrics and happy music that smacks of the '70s sound that was prevalent on Broadway.
Minnie Boys starts when the brothers are mostly in high school or working for pennies in the Bronx. They are natural extroverts, and entertainment is in their blood. They love to disrupt daily routines and explode surprises - like firecrackers in one scene. Minnie can see the boys should be in show business, even though Papa Marx was not so sure. Only Gummo decides the stage is not for him and becomes a business man in the fashion industry. Mama wins out since her brother-in-law, vaudeville legend Al Shean, helps the boys get a start in world of vaudeville. Minnie and the boys go through a series of fleabag hotels, one night stands, brief vaudeville runs and finally, the epitome of variety show houses, The Palace. They change their names several times (originally, they were called the Four Nightingales). The musical ends in 1925 as each of the four brothers finally gets his own persona and they become The Marx Brothers.
Greg MacKellan has assembled a superb cast of young talent for this fast-paced and zinging musical. The young actors portraying the five Marx Brothers are galvanizing. Outstanding are Michael Austin (The Rainmaker at California Conservatory Theatre) as Groucho and Kalon Thibodeaux (recently appeared in theatres in Florida, including the southern premiere of Kimberly Akimbo) as Harpo. Austin and Thibodeaux play these brothers not as caricatures but as human beings. Austin slowly lets the persona of Groucho come into play as the musical progresses. Thibodeaux could be the great-great grandson of Harpo. He looks like a young Harpo and his mannerisms are developed as each scene progresses.
Anil Margsahaym (recently with the Palo Alto players) gives a nice portrayal of Chico; this brother does not obtain his fractured Italian accent in the act until the end of the musical. Douglas Giorgis (NCTC's The Kilt plus numerous appearances at NCTC and the Willows) has the difficult role of Zeppo. In the early films at Paramount, Zeppo was a very wooden actor with really no charisma. Giorgis has to portray the character as a shadowy person, stepping back as the three brothers do wild and crazy things. Nick Kealy (Huck in Big River and Lt Hayes in South Pacific at the Willows) has the least showy role, but he does well as the brother with a business head.
All five have great vocal chops in their upbeat and exuberant numbers. The antics of the three main brothers are side-splitting, especially when Brian Yates Sharber (many 42nd St Moon appearances) appears in comical drag looking like Josephine Baker as Maxie in the first act. This actor is also very good as E.F. Albee, with the brothers throwing out malapropisms and zingers. The brothers are also flawless when clowning around with Christine Macomber (the "old dame" in Lamplighters Productions), who is the perfect Margaret E. Dumont (you Marx Brothers fans know who she is).
Darlene Popovic, who has graced many a 42nd Street Production as a comedian and singer, plays a toned down Minnie. She gives a heartfelt rendition of "They Give Me Love," but she is not brassy enough for an over-ambitious mother. Dare I say it, she is not Jewish enough. David Curley shines briefly in the minor role of Al Shean and delivers old vaudeville schtick jokes such as "you look like a million dollars ... green and wrinkly." He belts out the song "Rich Is" along with the entire Marx family. Michael Patrick Gaffney, who has also played in many of the company's productions, gives an effective performance as Sam, the father of this brood. The younger man gives the right appearance as a stoop-shoulder, hard-working Jewish father, and he performs a beautiful solo in "Empty." The rest of the cast effectively support the main characters.
Musical director Dave Dobrusky is excellent on the piano and choreographer Tom Segal gives us an old-time feel about the dances. Greg MacKellan keeps the action going and has obtained perfect timing from these young actors.
Minnie's Boys plays through April 17 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco (between Battery and Front). Tickets can be obtained by calling the Yerba Buena Center Box Office at 415-978-2787 or visiting www.42ndStMoon.org. Their next production is the Rodgers and Hart farce The Boys from Syracuse, opening on April 27th.