by Noah Diamond

BearManor Media


360pp/$24.95/April 2016

Gimme a Thrill<

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

For many people, the introduction to the Marx Brothers are through pop cultural references to Groucho, Harpo, and sometimes Chico (but never Zeppo!). From there, the films are the next step, usually focusing on Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera before moving on to the lesser known (and often lesser) films like At the Circus, Room Service, or The Big Store. At some point, for real fans, knowledge of the Marx Brothers' earlier career in Vaudeville or Broadway begins to emerge, specifically noting that The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were Broadway plays before they were adapted to the big screen. Even before The Cocoanuts, however, the Marx Brothers had appeared in several shows, from Home Again to NEverthing to The Cinderella Girl, all lost, and all now discussed in Robert S. Bader's Four of the Three Musketeers. Another Marx Brothers vehicle, I'll Say She Is was their break on Broadway from Vaudeville, running for 313 performances. Unfortunately, much of this play has been lost. Noah Diamond's Gimme a Thrill: The Story of I'll Say She Is, the Lost Marx Brothers Musical and How It Was Found presents the history behind I'll Say She Is as well as his attempt to resurrect this Marx Brothers musical which critics at the time raved about.

The first half of the book gives a brief history of the Marx Brothers' Vaudeville career as well as the career of Will Johnstone, who would be the principle writer for I'll Say She Is. Diamond gives as much background as he has been able to find, not only into the creation of the show, but also of the non-Marxian actors who appeared in the show. Additionally, he discusses the troubles the Marxes had bringing the show to fruition and the impact it had once it arrived on Broadway.

Diamond's history of the play is punctuated by Diamond's own sense of humor which is likely to appeal to any Marx Brothers fan reading the work. Noting that I'll Say She Is star "Lotta Miles" used several names, all variations on her stage name, her birth name, or her married name, Diamond ends with the statement that "everyone knew her as Nancy," unrelated to any of her names, but a nice shout out to the Beatles. By the end of the first half of the book, the reader has a pretty good idea of what they are missing by the script to I'll Say She Is being lost, as well as the knowledge that even if the script were to have survived, it would only give a brief outline of what playgoers saw in 1924. Diamond's exploration of the Marx Brothers history is part of the "New Marx Brothers studies" exemplified by Bader and Matthew Coniam, which is more concerned with learning what happened than lionizing the Brothers and repeating the often exaggerated stories Groucho and Harpo shared so often in their lifetimes.

The second half of the book details Diamond's own experience with I'll Say She Is, as well as the Marx Brothers. He explains how he came to become a fan and learned about their lost play. Once he had set his sights on I'll Say She Is, it was only a matter of time before he tried to recreate the play, a process which was drawn out and complex and didn't always move in the right direction. With help from other Marx Brothers fans, the descendants of original playwright Will Johnstone, and other members of the acting and burlesque community, Diamond was eventually able to create a version of I'll Say She Is, although he admits that part of his goal was to make the play accessible to modern audiences. His play doesn't necessarily follow the known order of the original play and it simplifies the casting. However, from Diamond's point of view, the original play was closer to a revue than to a modern musical, which meant there could be allowances for different acts that were available.

The culmination of the book is a reading of Diamond's recreation at the 2014 Marxfest in New York followed by a scaled-down production of the show at the 2014 Fringe Festival in New York. The book was published prior to the 2016 staging of the play as a full production, although Diamond is certainly pointed in that direction, as well as hoping that he'll eventually see a touring company of I'll say She Is. The emotional high point of the book is an exchange with probably the only person to have seen both Diamond's I'll Say She Is and the original production, 90 years earlier.

Gimme a Thrill is an enjoyable book, both halves of which read almost like related detective stories as Diamond first pieces together the history of the lost show and then pieces together the lost show itself. His writing style is chatty with appropriate humorous aside throughout. While reading about I'll Say She Is comes with a certainly sense of melancholy that the actual show is loss, Diamond's project has brought hope that the modern playgoer will have the chance to see a version of it, just as modern audiences can see version of The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers on film, even if they are very different from the stage plays that preceded them.

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