Scrub away your black-and-white memories. These are the Marx Brothers, live and in full pastel color, at the Guthrie Theater. They are performing a mash-up of “The Cocoanuts,” their 1920s stage musical and film.
This is the conceit of Mark Bedard and David Ivers, who respectively adapted and directed a production that had its origins at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and opened Friday in Minneapolis.
Ivers’ production feels way overcooked and self-aware. The ad-libs work sporadically or long overstay their welcome in a cartoon world (however lovely it is in Richard L. Hay’s set) and the whole affair misses the easy sophistication — dare we say the droll and subtle confidence — of the Marx Brothers. The actors fall in love with their own charm as they labor for laughs.
Bedard stitched together material from the musical and the film, added songs from Irving Berlin (who wrote the original tunes from 1925) and then left lots of time for shtick, audience involvement (which can get a bit too involved) and local jokes.
The plot would take too long to spell out, and it really doesn’t matter. You are here to see the guys.
We can’t see the Marx Brothers live, but we can only hope they didn’t have to sweat this hard.
Bedard is physically adept as Groucho, though his sensibility feels askew. Groucho and Margaret Dumont were so sly and witty in the 1929 film, but here Bedard and Peggy O’Connell’s “Mrs. Potter” land in Dogpatch, U.S.A. It’s screechy and loud; I half expected to see O’Connell clenching a corncob pipe between her teeth.
John Tufts gets Chico’s tone better, though it’s odd to see the oldest Marx brother as a young, lanky, handsome guy. Brent Hinkley takes the dream role of Harpo — no words but loads of face time — and generally hits his mark.
For reasons of script economy, Bedard conflates the role of Zeppo (Justin Keyes) with the male romantic lead. Zeppo never seems sure whether to crack wise with the guys or swoon over his girlfriend.
That girlfriend, Polly Potter, is played by Cat Brindisi, who always performs at perfect pitch. Physically she’s gorgeous, and her voice rings like a bell.
Ivers has directed garish caricatures for the rest of the cast.
Poor Ann Michels portrays Penelope Martin, one of two con artists snaking through the play. Michels is an accomplished actor who shows what a good sport she is in this thankless role.
Harvey Yates, Penelope’s partner in crime, and Detective Hennessey, who smells a rat somewhere in this cheap resort, are even more outlandish. Paul de Cordova had best hope his face doesn’t freeze that way, and Trent Armand Kendall gets turned all upside-down into a million weird poses as the hotel dick.
Several bits work well. The door-slamming farce in the adjacent hotel rooms is a classic. Tufts gets the most of Chico’s “Why a Duck?” dialogue with Bedard’s Groucho. And though Chico doesn’t play the piano, his musical number near the end gets the right spirit.
As beautiful as all this looks (Meg Neville’s costumes, Marcus Doshi’s lights, Jaclyn Miller’s choreography and Gregg Coffin’s band), the effort disappoints in a show that sneaks past two and a half hours. Life is too short.