`Cocoanuts' in lively revival. Credible `Marx brothers' head cast of hilarious show

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THEY ought to declare a ``Cocoanuts alert'' at Arena Stage. Audiences for the Marx brothers revival are bombarded with laughs as though a bunch of monkeys chittering away in tall trees were hurling coconuts at them. And the audiences love it; the run of the revival of this Irving Berlin musical has been extended twice, to July 31.

This antic and hilarious production of ``Cocoanuts,'' directed by Douglas Wager, boasts a quartet of actors so uncannily like the real Marx brothers that it's almost d'ej`a vu.

Dead ringer for Harpo

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The top banana of them all in this production is the guy with no lines, Charles Janasz, impersonating the mutely funny Harpo Marx in the role of Silent Sam. Janasz is a dead ringer for Harpo, with his wily, rubber face, his frantically curling nest of red hair tamed with a top hat, his slithering arms that dart out to filch anything not nailed down and hide it in his baggy clothes.

As hungry Harpo he munches on everything in sight, from the desk register to the telephone. In one scene Harpo, with a wild grin, ardently kisses the ing'enue's hand, whisks out a salt cellar, sprinkles some on her wrist, and begins working his way up her arm as though it were an ear of corn.

The plot of ``The Cocoanuts'' is pure froth, just barely there, but enough for two legends to do a comic pas de deux: George S. Kaufman wrote the book, and Irving Berlin wrote the music and lyrics.

The musical deals with the Florida land boom of the '20s, which threatens the failing Cocoanuts Hotel with its sunny little beachfront bungalows.

This madcap revival, the first since the Berlin musical's 1925 production, also boasts a fine Groucho. He's Stephen Mellor, who plays hotel manager Henry W. Schlemmer. Banjo-eyed, mustachioed, and flip, Mr. Mellor walks at Groucho's standard 45-degree angle, trailing clouds of cigar smoke and vaudeville jokes.

Cocoanut Manor, he rasps - ``it's the most exclusive residential area in Florida: Nobody lives there.''

Mellor captures Groucho's daffiness but doesn't quite have his slice and bite.

Ralph Cosham is comically pompous in the Zeppo role of Jamison, and Mitchell Greenberg is amusingly crass in the Chico part of Willie the Shill.

As the rich and infamous Mrs. Potter, starchy dowager of the seashell set, Halo Wines is a wonderful foil for Mellor's zany Groucho. She sails in like some ocean liner swathed in chiffon, with a voice like a dropped anchor, in the original Margaret DuMont role.

More than just laughs

Arena's lovely bunch of ``Cocoanuts'' is not just laughs, with its Kaufman book. It's entertaining singing and dancing of some Berlin charmers in this, his 100th anniversary year.

The real show-stopper, though, is a double spoof of flamboyant Spanish dance numbers in ``Tango Melody'' and ``Tale of a Shirt,'' or ``Carmen'' done as a Marx brothers aria.

Arena Stage spent two years, using a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, to find, restore, and re-orchestrate the original Berlin music.

Additional research was also done for the production's working script, gleaned from an early Kaufman draft as well as the stage play and screenplay.

The result is a crackling-good vintage musical, directed with pell-mell brilliance by Mr. Wager.

Thomas Lynch's sparkling sets, Martin Pakledinaz's saucy costumes, and Baayork Lee's amusing choreography all contribute to the daft ambiance of ``The Cocoanuts.''

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