Hitting the Marx 

Contra Costa Civic brings the brothers back.

When you think of hit Broadway musicals, it's easy to forget something like The Cocoanuts, which played the Lyric Theatre for eight months in 1925 and '26. That's because, more than an Irving Berlin musical with a book by George S. Kaufman (not too shabby, as pedigrees go), it was first and foremost a Marx Brothers vehicle, the one that became their first feature film. So for a community theater to stage it as they might any other musical takes some chutzpah, but the folks at El Cerrito's Contra Costa Civic Theatre had so much fun doing Animal Crackers in 2006 that they decided to reunite their own Marx Brothers .

As was the case with Mae West's Sex at the Aurora last year, doing a play like this is often complicated because you're really playing two roles at once — both the character and the famous personality who played it originally. In this case that complexity is alleviated by the fact that the characters in The Cocoanuts are inconsequential. They're just Groucho, Chico, and Harpo by any other name — and you really have to be paying attention to catch the names the latter two are using at all.

The Cocoanuts isn't as strong a script as Animal Crackers (also cowritten by Kaufman), although it has a few memorable moments such as the viaduct ("why a duck?") routine. Groucho is a hotel owner trying to take advantage of a real estate boom, his brothers are a couple of pickpockets, and there's a scheme to defraud a rich society matron who wants to marry her daughter off to a supposed wealthy heir who's actually a con man despite the fact that the girl loves a poor aspiring architect. It's not worth worrying about.

More surprisingly, Berlin's songs for it haven't stood the test of time nearly as well as those Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby wrote for the latter show. The closest there is to a memorable song is the schmaltzy love duet "Always," which eventually did become a hit but was left out of the original staging and the film. The songs aren't even ephemeral because they're somehow plot-anchored "book numbers" — in fact, aside from the love duets they don't have much to do with the action at all.

Timothy Beagley does a credible Groucho impersonation, and his comic timing is sharp but not so much so that you can quite believe that people can't keep up with him, an aspect that a lot of his humor relies on. Instead of the canny shiftiness of someone who's not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, Tom Reardon goes for blank-eyed, gape-jawed idiocy in the Chico role, but the most puzzling bit is how his feet are constantly shuffling in a near-trot like a punch-drunk boxer. Amy Nielson's Harpo was a hilarious highlight of the previous show, and her slight-of-hand slapstick is still quite funny despite the fact that she has less to do in this production.

The young lovers are more interesting than usual in a comedy like this, mainly because Jillian Seagrave has such a sunny voice and demeanor and such grace while dancing as the ingenue Polly. Benjamin Scott has some upright charm as true love Bob, and Nan Ayers does the flustered Margaret Dumont shtick proud as stuffy Mrs. Potter. Although strong in the dance numbers, Jessica Kiely lacks poise as husky-voiced con artist Penelope, but in that sense she's true to Kay Francis' wispy film performance.

Perhaps because there are so many people on stage, much of Nielson's choreography involves some limp shuffling back and forth in place, but there are some standout dance numbers such as a tap dance of the bellhops and Penelope's lively homage to the Charleston. The ballroom-style dances between Bob and Polly are also delightful, as is Groucho's exaggerated tango with Mrs. Potter.

The production looks great, with a gaudy quasi-deco hotel lobby set by Matt Flynn and sharp formal attire by Helen Slomowitz. The small band ably led by Joe Simiele is visible on the set's second story throughout the show. Particularly missed amid the hubbub is the usual cameo appearance in nearly every CCCT production by theater founder and longtime artistic director Louis Flynn, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 86.

Director Kate Culbertson (who's also artistic director while Mark Manske is on hiatus) keeps the pace snappy, especially in a beautifully executed door-slamming scene with half the characters darting in and out of two adjoining suites. Other comedic highlights include a real estate auction where planted shill Chico keeps outbidding himself, and an operatic bit with a detective (Alex Shafer) lamenting the loss of his stolen shirt to the tune of the "Habanera" from Carmen. The Marx Brothers were always the glue that held this bit of fluff together, but this affectionate homage is an entertaining enough way to pass the time while the real ones are unavailable.


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