Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
As the property that launched the career of the Marx Brothers, The Cocoanuts has gold star credentials: a George S. Kaufman book and an Irving Berlin score. Even so, the show reflects the giddy escapism of its era. It premiered on Broadway in 1925, in the midst the Roaring Twenties, and ran for 276 performances, a smash hit back then. It was the first show built around the manic talents of the Marx Brothers. Their only prior Broadway outing was the 1924 revue I'll Say She Is, in which they were among numerous featured actsand billed as Adolph, Leonard, Herbert, and Julius Marx. A year later, in The Cocoanuts they were Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Julius. They repeated their pandemonium in the 1929 movie, and the rest is history.
There is a story, goofy and improbable though it be. The Cocoanuts is a down on its luck Florida hotel owned by Mr. Hammer (the Groucho character). We find wealthy Mrs. Potter (the Margaret Dumont character in the film version) who wants her daughter Polly to marry the proper and (it would seem) wealthy Harvey Yates, but Polly is in love with the hotel's desk clerk, Robert Jamison (the Zeppo part). Also staying at the hotel is gold-digger Penelope Martin. Harpo and Chico arrive as guests, followed by hapless Detective Hennessy, on the trail of whatever monkey business is going on.
The whole kettle gets stirred up with jewel heists, real estate schemes, thwarted roués, and other forms of hilarity. Does it all end well? You gotta be kidding! Anyway, the whole business is a frame for riotous wordplay (including the well-known "viaductwhy a duck" routine), shameless vamping, false accusations, uproarious teas, and madcap farce. A terrifically staged scene has the four brothers Marx coming and going between two rooms, three doors, and under a bed, and a scene of a land auction run amok is equally hilarious.
Irving Berlin's score includes only one song that has stood the test of time, but it's a honey, the evergreen "Always." The highpoint of the score is "The Tale of a Shirt", Detective Hennessy's hilariously desperate appeal for the return of the shirt which has somehow been stolen right off his back. Other songs extend the comic plot musically, bearing such titles as "My Family Reputation," "Why Am I a Hit with the Ladies?," "Lucky Boy," "Florida By the Sea," and "Everyone in the World Is Doing the Charleston."
Speaking of the Charleston, both that and the tango are featured among the period-appropriate dances devised by Jaclyn Miller. The nine principals are joined by a three person ensemble also serving as a harmonic trio for some of the songs. Though only twelve performers form the entire cast, the sprightly music, lively choreography, and vibrant physical production give a feeling of abundance to each musical number.
Mark Bedard, as Mr. Hammer (Grouch), has the most crucial part in keeping the whole business aloft and he carries it off in great style, issuing Grouch's trademark rapid-fire word play and rubbery movements with aplomb. His comrades in lunacy, Brent Hinkley (Harpo), John Tufts (Chico), and Justin Keyes (Robert Jamison"Zeppo"), each handle their roles equally well. Chico's humor based on accents of the foreign born may feel a bit dated in these politically correct times, but Tufts carries it off as harmless fun, and never mean spirited. Keyes manages well the dual task of being wacky at times, as a Marx brother is called upon to do, but also earnest and endearing as Polly's partner in true love.
The rest of the cast is just peachy. Peggy O'Connell has a bit less indignation, more befuddlement, than Margaret Dumont brought to the dowager part, Mrs. Potter, but what she does is terrific. Cat Brindisi is assured as Polly Potter, and her strong voice serves the music well. Ann Michels, after months playing virtuous Mary Poppins at Chanhassen, is deliciously cunning as Penelope Martin. Paul de Cordova makes a fine Harvey Yatesdashing on the outside, hollow on the inside. Last but not least, Trent Armand Kendall provides Detective Hennessy with a heaping dose of clueless bluster.
The design team has done a swell job of creating a physical manifestation of the innocent hilarity and devil-may-care book, music, and performances. Richard L. Hay has designed moving parts that produce the faux elegance of the Cocoanuts Hotel, Meg Neville has designed vibrant and witty costumes that hit the mark for each character, and Marcus Doshi's lighting suggests sun-dappled daytimes and moonlit intrigues.
This is the kind of show that really fits the quip "they don't make 'em like that anymore." Probably for good reason, for it is unrelentingly foolish and frivolous, about nothing but a grand time being had on stage and in the audience. But thank goodness they once did make 'em like that, and that the Guthrie had the bright idea of wrapping this one up in glittering style, a splendid holiday gift to be enjoyed anew.
The Cocoanuts continues through January 3, 2016, at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage. 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets from $34.00 -$64.00. Student, Senior (65+) and active military discounts available. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org. Rush seats available 30 minutes before performance, prices range $15.00 - $30.00, cash only.
Music and Lyrics: Irving Berlin; Book: George S. Kaufman; Book Adapted by: Mark Bedard; Musical Adaptation: Gregg Coffin; Director: David Ives; Music Director: Gregg Coffin; Choreographer: Jaclyn Miller; Scenic Design: Richard L. Hay; Costume Design: Meg Neville; Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi; Sound Design: Scott W. Edwards; Associate Music Director: Erik Daniells; Projections Coordinator: Tom Mays; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Voice and Text Director: Rebecca Clark Carey; Stage Manager: Tree O'Halloran; Assistant Stage Manager: Chris A. Code; Assistant Director: Joseph Stodola; Design Assistants: Alice Fredrickson (costumes), and Reid Rejsa (sound associate); Dance Captain: Katie Hahn.
Cast: Mark Bedard (Mr. Hammer - "Groucho"), Cat Brindisi (Polly Potter), Paul de Cordova (Harvey Yates), Jessica Fredrickson (Trixie), Katie Hahn (Coco), Brent Hinkley ("Harpo"), Trent Armand Kendall (Detective Hennessy), Justin Keyes (Robert Jamison "Zeppo"), Ann Michels (Penelope Martin), Wesley Mouri (Nate), Peggy O'Connell (Mrs. Potter), John Tufts ("Chico").