Irving Berlin had two musicals playing in New York at the same time this spring when a revival of THE COCOANUTS at American Jewish Theatre extended its run, and eventually transferred off - Broadway, overlapping with the mid - June performances of LOUISIANA PURCHASE (see cover story).
Strangely, considering that the original production had been one of Irving Berlin's biggest post - WWI successes, the AJT revival marked THE COCOANUTS' first New York production in more than 70 years. Why? And while we're at it, why a duck?
It wasn't just the charming Berlin score and hilarious George S. Kaufman book that made THE COCOANUTS a smash in 1925; while some shows may rate four stars, this one had four stars - and their names were Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo. THE COCOANUTS was the first of the Marx Brothers' stage musicals to transfer to the silver screen, and it launched their career as Hollywood's silliest siblings. Paradoxically, their triumphs in Hollywood pre - empted a return to New York, and as the Brothers' stage roots withered, so did their stage vehicles. A Marx Brothers musical without the Marx Brothers? Horse feathers!
But in 1988, the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. revived THE COCOANUTS to wild acclaim; they didn't revive the Marx Brothers themselves exactly, but managed to find four talented actors who could fill in quite nicely thank you, and to their audience's delight. When The R&H Theatre Library began representing the Berlin musical catalogue in 1990, THE COCOANUTS continued to inspire Marxists around the country.
And finally this spring, THE COCOANUTS bounced back into the Big Apple. Presented by AJT under the auspices of Artistic Director Stanley Brechner, it was directed and choreographed by Richard Sabellico. In their reviews the New York critics, who can often be grouchos themselves, turned out to be more tickled than Harpo in a featherpillow factory.
"This happy confection offers not only the resurrection of Groucho, Chico and Harpo,"" wrote Lawrence van Gelder in the New York Times, "but also the wit of George S. Kaufman and a score by Irving Berlin that includes the ever - green 'Always'."
At the risk of setting film buffs in a huff, van Gelder even reported that this show "seems faster, funnier and fresher than the 1929 adaptation that introduced the Marx Brothers to the moviegoing public."
Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News praised the Berlin score "full of snappy novelty numbers," and gratefully added that this was a musical where "everything works to do what old - fashioned musicals used to do - entertain." Applauding the "engaging, spirit - lifting songs," Mary Campbell of Associated Press called THE COCOANUTS "zany fun which escalates to complete nonsense," and Clive Barnes of the New York Post decreed it "hilarious...a Marxist laff fest." Michael Sommers of the Newark Star Ledger loved "the great George S. Kaufman's wisecracking script...cute Irving Berlin tunes...[and] Richard Sabellico's swift and breezy staging...It's one of the silliest little shows you'll ever see," he concluded, "but the musical's daffiness is contagious...high Marx indeed."
After its five - week run at American Jewish Theatre, plus another month's extension, THE COCOANUTS transferred in early August to the American Place Theatre, presented by Raymond J. Greenwald, Ltd. For tickets and information call Tele - Charge at (212) 239 - 6200; outside metro New York, (800) 432 - 7250; for groups, (212) 889 - 4300.