Maybe it’s not the real Marx Brothers, but there’s still plenty of good fun to be had at the American Jewish Theater’s worthy revival of “The Cocoanuts.” George S. Kaufman’s witty banter generates genuine guffaws (as well as a healthy number of groans), and the songs by Irving Berlin, if generally less than his top-drawer material, all contain a happy surprise in a sudden twist of lyric or tune.
Director Richard Sabellico has skillfully managed the re-creation of the script’s comic set pieces, such as the immortal “Why a duck?” dialogue between Groucho and Chico, and oiled up the creakier romantic interludes so that they turn painlessly, and even occasionally take flight, as when a swing suddenly appears downstage center and the young heroine soars over the front rows of the audience.
Of course, it’s quite odd at first to be seeing this show in color, when memory insists that it be black-and-white. Costume designer Jonathan Bixby has kept Groucho familiar in his black frock coat, but the old-movie shades-of-gray plaids, checks and dots that adorned Chico and Harpo are suddenly and pleasingly bright with yellows and greens. Jeff Modereger’s sets provide an equally happy burst of color, and lighting designer Brian Nason drolly splashes oranges and greens around the stage during the flashy “Tango Melody” number.
It is during the tango number, near the start of act two, that the show really comes alive, thanks in large part to Celia Tackaberry as Mrs. Potter, the foil for most of the Marx Brothers’ gags. In the movies, this was the role played by the stiff-as-a-board Margaret Dumont. But Tackaberry juices the character way up. (Groucho might actually have a good time if he persuaded this wealthy widow to be his.) In the same vein is the performance of Michael Mulheren as the cop, another role that was wooden in the film, but here takes on a whole new and hysterical life as he leads the whole cast into the big, satisfying finale.
Michael McGrath, in the Groucho role, is the most impressive of the three Marx impersonators, although Robert Sapoff catches much of Harpo’s sly sweetness , and Peter Slutsker suggests more than a little of Chico’s smoldering anger. (Slutsker is at his best, though, when re-creating one of Chico’s offbeat piano solos.) It may simply be that McGrath, who puts in a lot more time onstage than the others, simply gets more chances to ad-lib with the audience and the other actors.
This points to the chief problem of reviving this show the impossibility of matching the reckless style of the Marx Brothers. As good as the actors playing them here are, the original brothers’ comedy was wildly anarchic and a reflection, to a large degree, of who they really were.
One is reminded of the late Zero Mostel, who reportedly got so bored playing Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” night after night that he became unpredictable, keeping a chorus of shtetl-dwellers and a follow-spot operator on their toes as he roamed the stage. Later Tevyes may have been better than Mostel, but certainly none was as big, if not bigger, than the show itself. The Marx Brothers, like Zero, were bigger than the show.