Brothers in Charms

Minnie's Boys is worth reviving, despite its original flop

Minnie's Boys, a musical comedy about the Marx Brothers' formative years, won't go down in the annals of Broadway history as one of the Great White Way's most resounding successes. When S.J. Perelman saw a performance of the original production at the Imperial Theater in New York in 1970, he was moved to dub the musical "a scalding descent into a tub of such merdeas hasn't been seen outside a Catskill Summer camp show." Writing in the New York Times, the ill-humored humorist added, "Plot there was none, and laughter less." Groucho Marx himself, who -- by then an old man -- acted as a consultant to the show, reportedly said to the cast after opening night, "Well, kids, we're finally home -- and home is where I'm going. This is amateur night." The production shut down after just 60 performances, having lost $500,000.

Perhaps Perelman didn't go for Shelley Winters' turn as matriarch Minnie Marx; the serious Method actress was battling a virus during the run and allegedly had trouble keeping up with the many last-minute script changes. Perchance the famously obstreperous Groucho hadn't taken his meds. Or maybe the Broadway production just stunk. Who knows? But I can tell you this: I recently attended a performance of 42nd Street Moon's revival of Minnie's Boys and laughed so hard that by intermission, the muscles around my jaw had seized up.

The musical describes life in the household of Sam and Minnie Marx, years before their sons Leonard, Adolph, Julius, Milton, and Herbert became better known (respectively) as Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo, and four of the five hit the big time with movies like Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, and Cocoanuts. (Never truly comfortable in show biz, Milton/Gummo followed in his father's footsteps and became a tailor.) With a book by Groucho's son, Arthur Marx, in collaboration with Robert Fisher, and a score by Hal Hackady and Larry Grossman, Minnie's Boysrevolves around Mrs. Marx's determined attempt to improve her family's fortunes by becoming that most alarming of maternal stereotypes: the Pushy Stage Mom.

Marx brothers Groucho (Michael Austin), 
Chico (Anil Margsahayam), Zeppo (Douglas 
Giorgis), and Harpo (Kalon Thibodeaux) 
with mother Minnie (Darlene Popovic).
David Allen
Marx brothers Groucho (Michael Austin), Chico (Anil Margsahayam), Zeppo (Douglas Giorgis), and Harpo (Kalon Thibodeaux) with mother Minnie (Darlene Popovic).

Undaunted by the show's less-than-spectacular history, 42nd Street Moon offers an exuberant production that reveals a little-known fact: Minnie's Boys is pretty great. Appealing to a common cultural obsession with the back stories of the rich and famous, the work provides fascinating (if not historically accurate) insight into the early careers of the Marx Brothers. From the day he was born, Arthur Marx observed his father's eyebrow-waggling antics at close range. Accordingly, his script doesn't sell us short on tomfoolery: The text is packed with wisecracks and zany set pieces, including a superbly silly rendition of one of the brothers' earliest turns on the vaudeville stage as "The Four Nightingales." And while Minnie's Boys doesn't boast any show-stopping tunes, the music is bow-tie-twirling stuff. Ranging from Harpo's schmaltzy ode to his mom, "Mama, a Rainbow," to Groucho's attempt to woo hostile landlady Mrs. McNish with the backhanded love song "You Remind Me of You," Hackady and Grossman's efforts provide a suitably eccentric accompaniment to a thoroughly outlandish plot.

Biographical plays and films often fixate upon casting actors who resemble their real-life counterparts, the makeup artist making up for what nature can't provide. But given that the real Groucho insisted -- even during his movie career -- on daubing the area above his upper lip with thick black paint, this production possesses a healthy sense of make-believe. Anil Margsahayam (Chico), Kalon Thibodeaux (Harpo), Michael Austin (Groucho), Nick Kealy (Gummo), and Douglas Giorgis (Zeppo) aren't dead ringers for their characters -- Margsahayam, for one, is probably the first South Asian ever to play the fake-Italian-accent-spouting, card-sharking Chico -- yet the performers embody the brothers with a gusto that makes the characters seem larger than life. In one of the best scenes, the boys raise merry hell in an intricately choreographed standoff with greedy vaudeville theater owner E.F. Albee (Brian Yates Sharber). As Chico terrorizes the impresario's secretary, Groucho plays verbal hide-and-seek with the clauses of the brothers' contract, and Zeppo and Harpo toast marshmallows over a fire they've lit in the office wastebasket, we can almost see the steam billowing out of the incensed Albee's ears.

As the formidable Minnie, Darlene Popovic proudly drags her urchin brood from one fleapit venue to the next, smothering the boys with love one minute and boxing their ears the next. In reality, Minnie probably had less to do with her sons' rise to success than her brother Al Shean, one of the most famous vaudeville comedians of the period. But Popovic captures Minnie's desire to be the brightest star in the Marx firmament, wisecracking and jumping about when she's the center of attention and pouting girlishly when pushed to the sidelines. The production also features some high-octane supporting roles, including David Curley's garish Uncle Al and Christine Macomber's shrill turn as the dowager camel Mrs. McNish -- spiritual sister to the rich old dames played by Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers' movies.

It's easy to dismiss the business of reviving "long lost" musicals as being driven by little more than nostalgia. In the same way that thirty- and fortysomethings go gaga over the original Star Wars movies and Atari video games, bobbing gray and white heads surround you as you take a seat for one of 42nd Street Moon's "retro" shows. But Artistic Directors Greg MacKellan (who also directs Minnie's Boys) and Stephanie Rhoads' knack for digging up and dusting off long-forgotten gems is about much more than an infatuation with the past. Some of the company's recent revivals, such as Cole Porter's Can-Can (1953) and Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's 1937 anti-war musical Hooray for What!, provide fascinatingly subversive insights into life in the early to mid 20th century, often going further in terms of social critique than movies of the day dared. Others, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) and Jerome Kern's Roberta (1933) -- which served, respectively, as the origins of such songbook classics as "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" -- are musical masterpieces.

Then there are shows like Minnie's Boys, which are just all-around hoots. The company has done Bay Area theatergoers a great service by ignoring this play's early reviews.

 
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