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  • Steps in the right direction

  • Nobody had ever seen anything like the comic anarchy the Marx Brothers unleashed on an unsuspecting world in the 1920s. But the new adaptation of "The Cocoanuts" now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre probably comes about as close as you can get.
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  • Nobody had ever seen anything like the comic anarchy the Marx Brothers unleashed on an unsuspecting world in the 1920s. But the new adaptation of "The Cocoanuts" now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre probably comes about as close as you can get.
    When Groucho (Mark Bedard), Harpo (Brent Hinkley) and Chico (John Tufts) aren't bedeviling K.T. Vogt as Mrs. Potter (the overly dignified dowager and Marx Brothers' foil originally played by Margaret Dumont) or tearing up the Angus Bowmer stage, they're going into the audience to create improvised mayhem on the spot, much as the original brothers did.
    In a show dense with live music and dance, there is a scene in the second act in which Detective Hennessey (David Kelly) is hot on the trail of a stolen necklace, and the boys keep interrupting him so that he can't focus. Just as Hennessey almost succeeds in hushing the crowd, everybody breaks into a raucous Charleston. The scene works, but not the way it was originally scripted.
    "The Charleston was supposed to be early in Act 1," says Jaclyn Miller, 30, the show's New York City-based choreographer. "The intention was a huge burst of energy, physicalized mayhem. The idea was right, but it wasn't in the right place.
    "Then we figured out that this was where we needed it to be. It had to be true to the storytelling. It wasn't just music, it was driving the story forward."
    The dance that got moved says a lot about the long, winding, collaborative nature of creating the dancing in a huge production such as this.
    "There were other changes," says Bedard, who adapted the play from the original stage and movie scripts. "But that was the biggest."
    Miller found out in March 2013 that she'd be choreographing the OSF's revival of the Marx Brothers classic. She'd choreographed the OSF's "My Fair Lady" and "The Taming of the Shrew" in 2013 and also worked on the choreography for the OSF's "The Pirates of Penzance" (2011) and "She Loves Me" (2010). Director David Ivers knew her from her work on "Shrew."
    "We hit it off and worked really well," she says.
    The OSF in 2012 did a highly successful production of the Marx Brothers' "Animal Crackers," and there was little doubt audiences would flock to a revival of the brothers' 1925 Broadway hit, which was made into their first feature-length film in 1929.
    "The Cocoanuts" has music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and a book by George S. Kaufman with additional text by Morrie Ryskind. It opened on Broadway on Dec. 8, 1925, and ran for 276 performances.
    In the Florida land boom of the 1920s, Mr. Hammer (Groucho) runs the Cocoanut Hotel. Chico and Harpo arrive bent on conning and robbing the guests. Society gal Mrs. Potter is there with daughter Polly, who is in love with struggling young architect Robert, who in his day job is the hotel clerk. Mrs. Potter wants Polly to marry Harvey Yates, who is actually a con man out to steal her diamonds with the help of his cohort, Penelope.
    All that, of course, is basically a framework in which the brothers run amok.
    The OSF project got under way with a production meeting in July 2013, seven months before the show would open. Working with Ivers and music director Gregg Coffin, Miller started with the question of what the dances would say.
    "We nailed down the story we wanted to tell in each number," she says.
    The idea was for the songs, about 20 of them, depending on how you count the reprises, to advance the plot. Miller listened to a lot of old music and spent a lot of time watching Marx Brothers movies, performances on YouTube, actual 1920s dancing, the Charleston, whatever she could get her hands on. The challenge was to be true to the brothers' anarchistic style and individuality while figuring out how to combine the vaudevillian stuff with the freshness of a new revival.
    "I'd get ideas about particular steps and stories," Miller says. "All three of us had ideas. We wanted to get to a point where we didn't know where the idea came from. I wanted it to be something that came naturally, not necessarily out of my brain. It was incredibly collaborative."
    Coffin said he wanted the music to match the level of the Marx Brothers' anarchy, which for Miller presented the challenge of trying to make physical the madness in dance numbers. There were other challenges. Some actors are trained dancers, others not. Miller says the OSF actors were willing to try anything, even if it wasn't their forte.
    "Often, people don't know what potential they have," she says. "It's fun for me to figure out what looks best on everybody's body."
    The idea was to come up with things that looked good for everyone. Some things, Miller says, only become clear once you're in the room with cast members.
    For the OSF production, the orchestrations were new, the script was new (a compilation of the different original versions minus some cuts). The challenge was to get a brand new show up and running in eight weeks.
    "The surprise was sort of how quickly everyone adapted to the show's vastness," Miller says. "It started to live and breathe so quickly." How so?
    "By having people who are beyond hilarious," Miller says. "Mark, Brent and John are so funny, witty and intelligent. They have that mind meld of humor. It's something magical, like nothing I've ever seen.
    "The show is built on anarchy, and then there's anarchy within the anarchy. Those three love to go into the audience and do this stuff, so you never see the same show twice."
    A scene involving an auction invites the audience to take part, and anybody who yells out a bid stands a good chance of, say, Chico (Tufts, improvising) climbing over the seats to get to him and improvise funny bits on the spot. Women may have their purses snatched by Harpo (Hinkley), who might look inside and pretend to be shocked.
    "If nobody were to bid, we'd just move on with the show," Miller says. "If people interject they'll take advantage of that. I have a feeling those guys are just like that, and this is an environment that supports that. I think it's who they are."
    Miller attended a performing arts high school in Los Angeles and studied musical theater in a program that often brought in Broadway professionals. Immediately after high school she became an assistant to Broadway and Hollywood actor, director and choreographer Gerry McIntyre ("Damn Yankees").
    "He took me under his wing and gave me countless opportunities," she says.
    She says her biggest influence is the work of choreographer/actor/director Bob Fosse.
    "There's something about the uniqueness and the awkwardness of his work," she says. "His choices came out of feeling inadequate. How incredible to build something out of feeling like that."
    In addition to her choreography, Miller has worked as an actor in such Hollywood films as "New Year's Eve" (2011), "Valentine's Day" (2010) and "The Road to Sundance" (2008). She says her process has been to stand back and say yes to whatever comes.
    "It's not where I thought I would wind up," she says of choreographing at the prestigious OSF. "But I'm enjoying the ride."
    She says she enjoys movie work but will always be a theater woman.
    "There's nothing like it," she says. "Anything can happen. It's a different beast."
    Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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