The musical mouthful A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine is just too much for the busy Twitter generation, so it has been redubbed ‘Hollykraine’ by the cast of high schoolers readying a rare revival out in the woods of Howard County.
Even more curious than hearing of a new student staging of this early Tommy Tune musical is learning that it’s being mounted by Glenelg Country School as its entry in this year’s Cappies of Baltimore derby.
Glenelg is the reigning triple-crown winner in the Cappie Awards‘ “Best Musical” category, taking home first-place honors in the last three showdowns for the annual high school honor.
Even for Glenelg’s theater director, Carole Graham Lehan, the choice of this half-forgotten homage to 1930s Hollywood and the zany Marx Brothers seems like a long-shot. But she has been yearning for a chance to produce it ever since first seeing it on Broadway, where it ran from May 1980 to September 1981.
The question is, How do you package nostalgia for an audience that has no connections with the original?
“I recognized that these students didn’t have any foundation in many of these classic movies,” says the director with an easy laugh. But in addition to being a stage performer and an award-winning playwright, Carole Lehan is first and foremost an educator, and this piece, she says, contains “a lexicon of characters in theater. You say ‘a Groucho type,’ and you should know what that is.”
Playing the ultimate “Groucho type,” in this case, will be Glenelg senior Tyler Hooper, who last year starred as Charlemagne in Pippin. It’s a long way from Medieval king to cinema’s most irreverent court jester, and all Tyler knew of the Marx Brothers beforehand was that they were known for “a dry kind of comedy.” He has since watched a lot of YouTube clips, and is using his rehearsal time trying to get the voice right. Says Tyler, “The voice is kind of pivotal to me.”
This play expects a lot from performers, since the first act is set in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and presents a pastiche of musical numbers require singing and dancing skills. Here Tyler Hooper will first appear outside of his Groucho makeup to croon “Sleepy Time Gal” in a tribute to film composer Richard A. Whiting that includes “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” and “Japanese Sandman.” The score also incorporates a tearjerking ode to showbiz ambition called “The Best in the World,” penned by Broadway veteran Jerry Herman.
The majority of songs, though, are original Hollywood comedy numbers by the team of Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus. These notably include a send-up of Nelson Eddy, a novelty tune titled “I Love a Film Cliche” and “The Production Code,” which sets Hollywood’s self-censorship commandments into a tap-happy litany of taboos.
The show’s emphasis on tap dancing in particular appealed to Carole Lehan’s educational sense. “I wanted this group to learn a new skill in tap.” To that end, she enlisted Baltimore show dance master Lester Holmes, who has been drilling members of the dancing chorus since November in preparation for the show’s March 6th opening.
“They had to audition, and we boiled them down to these 18, so that’s been fantastic,” notes Lehan. Even students who had never thought of tap dancing before, she says, can now be seen tapping everywhere they go.
It’s in the second act that the Marx Brothers are fully unleashed in a madcap spoof of Anton Chekhov’s one-act play, The Bear. But that doesn’t stem the flow of songs, with Vosburgh and Lazarus coming up with tuneful character romps for Groucho (as Samovar, the lawyer) and his Margaret Dumont-type foil, Mrs. Pavlenko, played by Saraniya Tharmarajah.
Carole Lehan says that she didn’t precast any parts, but was on the lookout for the best actor for each role.
“The biggest surprise was Conor Burke, who has never been in one of our shows,” she recalls. “He’s a trained Irish step-dancer who competes internationally, and during auditions he just gave himself permission to perform in a really authentic way, having a lot of fun, and he just looked like Harpo.”
Conor Burke says he didn’t know anything about the only silent Marx brother before landing the role. “I watched Harpo’s facial expressions, especially his eyebrow movements and smiles,” says the senior. Although Conor isn’t asked to play a harp in the show, he says he does get to “mock play” the spokes of a bicycle at one point. And his naturally curly red locks should help audience members in the know relate to the beloved film comic.
Cast more with his musical skills in mind was 11th-grader Cooper Taylor, who as Chico is called upon to play the piano, much like his counterpart in the movies. He also watched YouTube videos to zero in on “inflection patterns and stuff like that.”
Playing Constantine, the Zeppo figure and lesser-known of the Marx Brothers, is Brandon Ocheltree. “He’s not very comedic,’ notes the senior, “but he’s fun to play because he’s romantic and over-dramatic, falling helplessly in love with this girl.”
Although he has never taken dance training, Ocheltree has a proven gift for dance and is being called upon to do both tap and even an Astaire-like ballroom routine opposite fellow senior Nicole Rieu.
Ocheltree was singled out for his dancing skills at last year’s Cappie Awards ceremony at The Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore. Now he feels he and his fellow cast members are working even harder to get there again. “We’re held to a pretty high standard in the Cappies community,” says Ocheltree. “But I feel like we always meet the bar.”