Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
What most of us are waiting to see is the half entitled A Night in the Ukraine, an early '30s "screening" of a "movie" based on Anton Chekhov's The Bear. Immediately upon re-entering the theatre after intermission, at the performance I attended, the audience began to noticeably buzz about the just-revealed set created by Patrick Klein. It is a late-19th / early-20th century parlor full of Russian trappings like dark red, flocked wallpaper, heavily draped curtains, furniture from a bygone era of aristocracy, and a huge fireplace with a picture of a matronly woman not unlike the overly sophisticated, rich ladies Margaret Dumont always played in the famed brothers' movies. Immediately, there is an increased expectation that we are about to enjoy a full-color, live-action replay of something close to the black-and-white comedies that are well-ingrained in many of our Marx Brothers movie memories (classics like Duck Soup, Cocoanuts, and Animal Crackers).
And the Palo Alto Players do not disappoint. Across our supposed screen (now a live stage) parade well-known, stock characters as well as the three brothers themselveseach with new names, but all embedded with many of the same ridiculous, over-the-top mannerisms, voices, and antics that were called upon time and again by their real counterparts in the movies. The situation is familiar to the standard, Marx movie plot, too. An aristocratic lady's household is suddenly "invaded" by a cigar-smoking, fast-moving man with painted mustache and eyebrows; an Italian with heavy accent who must sit down at some point and play the piano; and a horn-honking, girl-chasing mute with Shirley Temple curls.
The mustached guy does all he can to insult the rather large, always-dressed-in-evening-gown widow (she who is always a rich widow) and then to convince her to marry him (while still pouring out one-line insults about her to the audience). And there is some kind of parallel romance between, usually, the wealthy lady's son or daughter to someone always not of the mother's approvalin this case an innocent, immature ingénue who falls immediately in love with an equally naïve visiting coachman.
Andrew Ceglio is Serge B. Samovar, a Moscow lawyer intent to collect a 1500-ruble debt owed by Mrs. Pavlenko's deceased husband. With darting, shifting eyes that shine like headlights under his massively black, always moving eyebrows, Mr. Ceglio's Serge is the Groucho we all know and love in almost every imaginable dimension. His body is as pliable as rubber as it glides in waves across the room, always with bent knees and at lightning speeds. He has the gravelly voice; his insulting and silly one-liners are constant in flow; and he does not know a twisted, pretzel-like position that his body cannot land on a couch. And when he sings a number like his opening "Samovar the Lawyer," his familiar fluid movements of body are matched by a voice that is so near the original in sound, pace, and animation that a double-take is required to ensure Groucho has not returned from the Great Beyond.
Equally convincing are Mohamed Ismail as Carlo (Mrs. Pavlenko's Italian footman) and Patty Reinhart as Gino (her non-speaking, whistling/honking gardener). Carlo is a-smooth a-talking in the same way as the original Chico, and he often plays the straight man to Serge's many bad jokes. Mr. Ismail also takes to the piano, imitating at once Chico's one-finger keyboard movements punctuated by a big-grin and pointing finger to the audience.
Ms. Reinhart as Gino (i.e., the Harpo lookalike) is a hoot with his baggy jacket pockets full of everything but the kitchen sink, his constant raising of a knee every time he is near Mrs. Pavlenko (with the knee always landing in the startled lady's hand), and his chasing and whistling after anyone in a skirt. Gino even uses an upside-down bicycle wheel to imitate playing the harp for us.
Director Patrick Klein has certainly not missed one chance to help his audience recall any and all favorite Marx Brother quirks and quacks.
Nor does Sarah Cook as Mrs. Pavlenko veer too far from the tall, postured dowager that Margaret Dumont usually played. Her posh-voiced encounters with Serge are met with his snappy insults to which she "ahems" with raised nose and stiff-movements as if truly insulted, only to ready herself for the next barrage with an uneasy smile and lifted eyebrow. Ms. Cook is superb, bringing that upper-crust society affectation in voice and stature to her entire performance. And when she sings, her rich soprano voice is truly reminiscent of the silver screen songs heard in the early 1930s.
Much of the recognition and humor of these well-known characterizations is due to the costumes designed by Pat Tyler. From Mrs. Pavlenko's rather tent-sized, chiffon evening gown with its strings of pearls and diamonds to the near-replica coats, hats, and trappings of the brothers themselves, Ms. Tyler has done everything possible to ensure we see our memories standing before us.
As Nina, Mrs. Pavlenko's daughter, Jessica Ellithorpe brings a lovely voice to her duet ("Just Like That") with Constantine (Andrew Kracht) as she falls heads over hills at first glance with the lowly coachman. Both actors are appropriately silly and endearing in their love-impacted emotions that swing back and forth faster than Gino's chase of a wandering maid.
Along with Michelle Skinner as Masha the Maid and Michael Saenz as Sascha the Manservant, this cast of eight hardly takes time to catch their individual breaths as the members ensure every minute is packed with visual and auditory comedic delights. A Night in the Ukraine, as produced by Palo Alto Players, is a throwback and a tribute sublime to all those characters many of us even today still go to see in movie houses featuring classic films. To anyone not familiar with the Marxes, the one-act farce is an open invitation not to miss the next, local Marx Brother film festival.
But to experience all that fun, one must first to sit through the musical revue A Day in Hollywood. The strength of that half is in the big tap-dance numbers, well executed by this same cast who are now the ushers of the Grauman trying to forestall an impatient audience who came to see the movie. Their tapping feet entertain both on the main stage in front of Patrick Klein's colorfully designed Chinese theatre doors as well as on an upper level where we can only see waist-down the dancing that occurs on what is supposedly the famous sidewalk of cemented footprints.
That division leads to the rather amusing "Famous Feet" where a number of familiar feet (Charlie Chapman, the Phantom of the Opera, Mickey and Minnie Mouse) come to have their impressions made as two ushers sing and tap on the stage below. A row of legs on that same upper ledge becomes a piano keyboard, and white-gloved hands play the keys to cleverly help "accompany" "It All Comes Out of the Piano."
The choreographic highlight of the first half (and probably the most famous, most-performed part of the entire musical) is a well-planned, well-tapped "Doin' the Production Code." The entire cast recites the notorious, 1930 list of big-screen don'ts published by the movie censorsall while tapping, kicking, and snappily moving in a synchronized line-up. (A huge round of applause to Lee Ann Payne for her choreography and to the cast for its execution.)
Where the "Day" part of this two-part musical falls flat (literally, unfortunately) is too often in the singing. Clearly, this cast was overall picked more for its wonderful dancing and comedic acting abilities than for its vocal performance, at least in some noticeable cases where sustained notes veer into unwanted territories. Also, part of this first act's issue is that the songs themselves are not always all that interesting and the chatter connecting them is only mildly funny at best.
But, fortunately, there are some notable exceptions in terms of the vocals. Whenever Andrew Ceglio steps to the mike (e.g., "Sleepy Time Gal"), he brings a rich crooner's quality that fits well in any of the musical movies of the era being recalled. Likewise, Jessica Ellithorpe's "Double Trouble" is beautifully rendered in a style natural and flowing; and her "Nelson" plays well both to her excellent soprano capabilities and to her subtle looks of humorous adoration for the statuesque, ever-handsome Canadian Mountie standing next to next to her.
Fortunately, the ordering of the evening's two acts leaves the exiting audience in smiles and lots of chitchat recalling favorite Marx Brothers moments and memories. And in the coming days and weeks, it will probably be the excellent tap dancing that is most recalled of the otherwise, not so memorable act one. For Palo Alto Players, the evening is overall a success and certainly a worthwhile reason to venture out for some fun.
A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine continues through February 5, 2017, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets for the Palo Alto Players production are available at www.paplayer.org or by calling 650-329-0891.