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Theater Review

As harmless diversions go, this musical hits the Marx

Jonathan Brody (left) and Michael McGrath as Chico and Groucho in Act 2. Jonathan Brody (left) and Michael McGrath as Chico and Groucho in Act 2. (Kathleen a. fahle)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / July 12, 2008

DENNIS - An escapist ode to escapism may not qualify as deathless art. In certain moods, however, sheer silliness is more valuable than Art.

Depression, for example - or, more specifically, the Great Depression, when flossy musicals and wacky comedies helped ease the pain. Our current depression - excuse me, recession - may not be Great (not yet, anyway), but it's good enough to make the Cape Playhouse's current salute to those bygone antidotes a welcome dose of fun.

"A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine" charmed London and Broadway audiences in 1980, but it's not revived so often as you might expect. It's a bit of an odd hybrid: The first act, set in Grauman's Chinese Theater, has singing ushers who pay tribute to old Hollywood musicals, with some original songs as well as such standards as "Over the Rainbow," "Sleepytime Gal," and "Easy to Love"; in Act 2, the actors reappear in the purported feature at the movie theater, an (imaginary) Marx Brothers comedy that claims descent from, of all things, a Chekhov play.

What unites the two halves is a deep affection for old movies: their style, their songs, their spirit. So your own affection for the result may depend on the depth of your fondness for the vanished Hollywood that inspired it - to say nothing of your level of familiarity with the characters, major and minor, of that scene.

It's hard to imagine, for example, that anyone under 45 or so will get much of a kick out of an entire song devoted to mocking Nelson Eddy. Alice Faye also doesn't make much of a punch line for Today's Youth. And while those of us who grew up watching Bob Hope specials on TV may be interested to learn the context in which he first sang his signature song, you probably won't get the kids humming "Thanks for the Memory" any time soon.

If those names do get you humming, though, "Hollywood/Ukraine" promises a couple of hours of harmless entertainment. The first act flows by in a lovely river of more or less familiar tunes, and the second is as giddy and goofy as you'd expect from a Marx Brothers pastiche. It's funny enough, in fact, that even the kids left at sea by old musicals would probably get an unexpected kick out of it.

The Cape Playhouse production wisely doesn't pile a lot of trickery on top of this sturdy structure. The first act simply features two onstage pianos, with artistic director Evans Haile playing just as charmingly as music director Matt Castle, and a just-gimmicky-enough bit of dancing feet behind a partly lowered curtain. Jonathan Brody is particularly endearing in a tribute to the half-forgotten songwriter Richard Whiting; Susan Cella also makes a strong impression as a Mermanesque belter, and Nancy Anderson gives a bittersweet song of stardom nearly achieved, "The Best in the World," the ideal blend of melancholy and strength.

Anderson is also very, very funny when she returns as Harpo Marx - playing the violin, not the harp, but who knows how to play the harp these days? (Deborah Henson-Conant fans, please hold your calls.) And Michael McGrath, though he looks and sounds more like Nathan Lane than the inimitable Groucho, wields both cigar and doubletalk with panache. His scenes with Cella, in the Margaret Dumont role, are especially hilarious.

They don't make 'em like that anymore. Except, just this once, they did.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

A Day in Hollywood/ A Night in the Ukraine

Musical with book and lyrics by Dick Vosburgh, music by Frank Lazarus

Directed and choreographed by: James Brennan. Musical direction, Matt Castle. Sets, Daniel Meeker. Costumes, Paul Favini. Lights, Christopher S. Chambers. Sound, James McCartney.

At: Cape Playhouse, Dennis, through July 19. Tickets, $30-$54.50, 877-385-3911, capeplayhouse.com

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