Well-Worn Schtick

Back when I was in High School, the Marx Brothers (and other 1930s and 1940s comedy teams) had a brief resurgance in popularity due to the long-awaited re-release of “Animal Crackers” in 1974 and series of still picture books by Richard Anobile (“Why a Duck?”, “Who’s On First”, “A Fine Mess”, and others). But today, if you mentioned comedy teams such as the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, or Abbott and Costello to the “youth of america”™, you’ld likely get a blank stare. Planely silly comedy, with intelligent wordplay, has been replaced by raunch and shock.

I mention all of these because last night we went to the NoHo Arts Center to see “It’s Top Secret [Facebook] (A Golden Performing Arts Center Production), part of the New American Festival of Musicals. “It’s Top Secret” bills itself as a Marx Brothers Musical (and there are precious few of those—“A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine” is the only one coming to mind, although “Cocoanuts” was originally a musical, and many of the Marx Bros films had music… and a non-musical bioplay, “Groucho: A Life in Revue” regularly trods the boards). With that billing, you don’t expect high comedy, a deep (or even sensical) plot, or your typical musical convention. You expect the Marx Brothers and zaniness.

The plot of “It’s Top Secret” is at the usual Marx Brothers level: sufficient enough to hang the comedy on, but not strong enough to withstand a Southern California earthquake. The year is 1942. Dr. Avendale is working on a TOP SECRET formula that will permit American to Win The War. His daughter (Carol) is in love with the beat cop (Frank), of whom Dr. Avendale and his wife (Lydia, a society matron) disapproves. However, the world is at war and treachery is afoot. As the play opens, Dr. Avendale is found dead. The butler (James) and the maid (Sally), who are really Nazi spies, conspire not to call the real FBI but the private detective agency of Notello Bordello (“Chico”) and Lucky (“Harpo”). Also called in is Milton P. Malpracticus (“Groucho”) as the coroner. The two words, “mayhem ensues”, never applied better.

As I said, this was a very slight plot, reminiscent in many ways of a bunch of Marx Brothers movies put into a blender. The strongest antecedent is perhaps Animal Crackers, but I also recognized elements of Duck Soup. Many of the characters were also charactures of movie characters: Lydia (played by a man in drag) was the Margaret Dumont role. Carol was the Thelma Todd role. Frank was obviously meant to be Zeppo, although he had little comic schtick. They also threw in almost all of the well-known Marx Brothers bits: Groucho’s puns, Harpo’s endless pockets and chasing of girls, Chico’s mangling of the languge, the chase, the fluid architecture, Harpo playing the harp. I could say they threw in everything except the kitchen sink, however…. they threw that in as well (which gives you an idea of the level of puns). The show broke the wall with the audience continually, making reference to the fact they were in a musical, and even commenting on the action and the audience.

The music in the show was slight. One song was sung four times—a fact that did not escape Groucho’s notice. They sang the audience off to Intermission, and exhorted us to by candy. There were tangos and ballets. But, as in the original movies, the music didn’t serve to further the plot—it was just another element of the entertainment, allowing characters to show their talent.

Acting-wise, it was reasonably well done. In the first tier of characters, we had the Marx Brothers equivalents: Dan Wilson Davisæ as Milton P. Malpracticus/Groucho; John Albert Price as Notelli Bordello/Chico; and Adam Miller as Lucky/Harpo. These three captured their charactures well. I was particuarly taken with Davis’ Groucho and Price’s Harpo—those two really captured the sillyness. Price’s Chico was a bit weaker, as he didn’t quite have the Italian scoundrel done right. But all three were fun to watch (and it was nice to see the Marx Brothers again): I had forgotten the zaniness, and I had forgotten how much fun a character that doesn’t speak can be if it is done right.

Turning to the second tier: Dimitri Toscasæ was a man in drag playing Lydia, the Margret Dumont characture. This was a bit weaker: I’m not sure the Brothers would have done the gender-bending, and there are certainly actresses that could have done the role. Still, Toscas was funny for the schtick he did. Megan Campbellæ was stronger as Carol, the Thelma Todd characture. She was a good singer and dancer, and seemed really to be having fun with the role. Stephen Vandetteæ was a good characture of Zeppo as Frank, the policeman. He had the slight stiffness and handsome demeanor that Zeppo had, and played with the comedy well.

Rounding out the cast were the two spies: Kyle Nudo as James and Ailene Quincyæ as Sally. Nudo was good and suitably comic as the bad guy, serving primarily as the foil for many jokes. I initially wasn’t sure about Quincy, with her deep voice and small stature. But as the evening wore on, I grew to like her more: she seemed to me to be in the Nancy Walker mode—perhaps not the strongest singer, but a gifted comic actress. Still, at points (especially in the first act), she came across as a little wooden and not having fun with the role. I hope she works on that—this is a show to play and have fun with. Completing the cast were John Welsh as Dr. Winston Avondale and Erin Daigle as the occasional kitchen help and ensemble member.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Turning to the technical side: David Goldstein provided the set (assisted by Tim Miller) and lighting design. The set was a simple living room with lots of doors and stairs, which worked well for the comedy. The lights also worked well to establish the mood, with some interesting gobos used (especially at intermission). The sound by Jeff Resnick was more of a problem: there was a fair amount of static at points, some characters were overamplified, and in general you were aware of the amplification. The costumes by Rachel Stivers were good: the Brothers were dressed as their characters usually were, and the other costumes seemed reasonably period (although I’m not sure there were Nazi cummerbunds and aprons, but perhaps I didn’t visit the right merch store). Todd M. Eskin was the production stage manager, assisting by Joni Davis.

It’s Top Secret” was written by Steven A. Muro and Daniel W. Davis. The production was directed and choreographed by Robert Petarca, who had one nice dance number in the corpse ballet. Paul Taylor was the music director and conducted the five-piece on-stage band, which included Taylor on piano, John Spooner on Percussion, Ross Craton and Tim Miller providing woodwinds, and Dave Hickok on trombone. The production was presented by the Golden Performing Arts Center, with Shelli and Tim Miller as Executive Producers.

“It’s Top Secret” continues at the NoHo Arts Center through July 11. You can get tickets from the production website; they are also available through Goldstar. More information is available from the “It’s Top Secret” production page or their facebook page. “It’s Top Secret” is a featured musical in the 3rd annual Festival of New American Musicals.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. This is a busy, busy summer. Tonight brings The Rocky Horror Show” at the Underground Theatre. July starts with “In The Heights” at the Pantages on July 3, and the Western Corps Connection in Riverside on July 5. The next weekend (July 10 @ 8pm) is the first show of the 2010-2011 Colony season, “Grace & Glorie”. The third weekend of July brings ; The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at REP East on July 17 and the July “Meeting of Minds on July 18. The 4th weekend brings Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on July 24, and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” at the Mark Taper Forum on July 25. Plus July will possibly bring some ventures out to the Hollywood Bowl. July or August should also bring [title of show] at the Celebration Theatre (July 16-September 5) — I’m just waiting for tickets to show up on Goldsar. In terms of what is ticketed and calendared, August starts with “Young Frankenstein” at the Pantages on August 1, and (hopefully) “Rent” at the Hollywood Bowl (pending ticketing) the following weekend. August 15 brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, and August 21 “Side Man” at REP East. Looking into September, there is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4, and “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 5-October 17, to be ticketed), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (9/17-10/16). It is unknown if there will be a September “Meeting of Minds”, and if so, when and where.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.