Theater Review: MINNIE’S BOYS (Musical Theatre Guild at the Alex Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on February 13, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


With a fun and intermittently funny score by Hal Hackady (lyrics) and Larry Grossman (music), perky, adorable, enterprising direction by J. Scott Lapp, and some shining performances, Musical Theatre Guild’s concert-staged production of the more-than-rarely produced flop Minnie’s Boys turned out to be a pleasant and occasionally hilarious outing. This had some of the most movement and best sound (although a bit overmiked) of any MTG show I remember. With Kevin Jenkins’ cute choreography and Thomas Griep’s tight direction for his small band and the ensemble’s harmonies, I could certainly overlook the show’s problems.

Now I understand why Minnie’s Boys, a musical about the origins of the Marx Brothers, shuttered after 76 performances in 1970: the show thinks it’s about Minnie, yet her sons get all the good bits. This is supposed to be a boisterous, pushy stage mother, but based on last Sunday’s one-night-only event, what should’ve been Minnie the Mouth feels more like Minnie the Mouse. Born Miene Schönberg in Germany, Minnie Marx came from a family of entertainers; her dad was a ventriloquist and magician, her mother a yodeling harpist (!), and her brother Al Shean was part of a Vaudeville duo, Gallagher and Shean, whose backstage fighting inspired Neil Simon’s Sunshine Boys.

But as written by Robert Fisher and Minnie’s grandson Arthur Marx (with dad Groucho getting “consultant” billing), this Gypsy wannabe fails to make Minnie Marx a controlling stage mother to be feared — or with a personal background for that matter. Even her husband Samuel “Frenchie” Marx gets short shrift — when Minnie abandons him temporarily to help the boys’ failing act in Texas, his one song — a ballad called “Empty” — was cut before opening night (but it’s on the Original Cast Album along with another cut ballad, “They Give Me Love”). Instead, she’s just a rather unamusing, kvetching, hugely homogenized mom who prods her problematic prodigies into show business because she doesn’t know what else to do with them. As such, the show lacks that backstage show biz spunkiness.

Not helping here is Susan Edwards Martin as Minnie, who in real life is credited as being the driving force behind the Marx Brothers’ success, managing them as Minnie Palmer until her death in 1929. Ms. Edwards Martin is neither bumptious nor charismatic enough to handle this Jewish Mother stereotype who should be nagging, loud, smothering, overprotective, and overbearing; who persists in interfering in her children’s lives long after they have become adults; and who is excellent at making her children feel guilty for actions that cause her to suffer.

To their credit, the authors don’t ruin our memory of the legendary comedy team by concentrating on the boys’ development of styles before hairpieces, horn, harp, and rollicking routines became a calling card. The best part is Groucho himself, first seen as an insouciant, blasé, young man named Julie who tosses off quips less with any desire of fame and more to distance himself from the many family melees brought about by five misfit sons and no rent money. As played with adroit vocal mimicry by the very tall Matthew Patrick Davis, Groucho’s lines never fail to amuse. The most successful song is used when Groucho needs to distract boarding house owner Mrs. McNish (a riotous Pamela Hamill) as his brothers sneak out their luggage which McNish has locked up for non-payment. Alternately insulting and romancing her (as Groucho would do for years with Margaret Dumont), the tango-infused “You Remind Me of You” fits the characters and period to a T.

Indeed, except for Milton a.k.a. Gummo (Matt Braver), who makes a late appearance in Act II, the show belongs to Groucho, Herbie a.k.a. Zeppo (Chad Doreck), Leonard a.k.a. Chico (Travis Leland), and Adolph a.k.a. Harpo (Scott McLean Harrison). While 25 hours of rehearsal (an Equity maximum) may have meant some shtick wasn’t well-timed enough, our delightful and equally handsome, well-moving, watchable heroes really came through. And Harrison did a terrific job with the show’s most enduring ballad, a birthday gift for Minnie, “Mama, A Rainbow.”

The book may lack suspense, conflict, and a darker side for Minnie (even if she wasn’t that way in real life, she needs to be here), the score is tuneful and agreeable, and we even got a toe-tapping replacement song at the top of Act II — “Hello, Big Time!” — added during previews of the Broadway production but not included on the album. Not in a bad way, but many songs are stuck in that 60s & 70s Broadway style, flirting with a darker Kander & Ebb in “Be Happy” and a lighter Strouse & Adams in Minnie’s guilt-inducing “You Don’t Have to Do It for Me.” The catchy “Minnie’s Boys” may be Jerry Herman-esque, but its Charleston feel also makes it a terrific fit for the period.

Grossman, who five years after Minnie’s Boys would write one of my favorite scores ever, Goodtime Charley (aided by the great orchestrator Jonathan Tunick), never had a Broadway hit, but wrote some of the most stunning melodies for shows such as A Doll’s Life (with Comden & Green) and Grind and Paper Moon (both with Ellen Fitzhugh). The prolific master was in the house for MTG’s revival, making it a very special evening indeed.

photos by Stan Chandler

Minnie’s Boys
Musical Theatre Guild
Alex Theatre | 216 Brand Blvd. in Glendale
played Sunday, February 10, 2018
for future events, call 818.243.2539 or visit MTG

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