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  • Gregg Coffin

  • Jenny Graham

    In “The Cocoanuts,” Harpo (Brent Hinkley), Chico (John Tufts) and Groucho (Mark Bedard) wait for some action at the Cocoanut Hotel.

Theater: ‘Cocoanuts’ and more at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Published: Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014 - 6:37 pm

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival knows a good thing when it produces it. Two years ago the festival had a critical and audience hit with its extremely funny production of the Marx Brothers’ “Animal Crackers.” This season Groucho is back.

Actor Mark Bedard, who played Groucho then, has adapted “The Cocoanuts,” the Marx Brothers’ Broadway success before “Animal Crackers” with a script by George S. Kaufman and songs by Irving Berlin. The Oregon production’s musical director is Sacramento-based composer-arranger Gregg Coffin.

“The Cocoanuts,” which opened this weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, will run until November. Also open is “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”; “The Tempest” and “The Comedy of Errors,” will open today.

Coffin is well-known to Sacramento audiences for his musical contributions to the Sacramento Theatre Company’s “A Christmas Carol.” His original musical “Five Course Love,” which had its world premiere at STC in 2005, has been an international success, and there will be four domestic productions this year. The beauty of Coffin’s intimate and poetic two-person musical drama “rightnexttome,” which had its world premiere at B Street Theatre, grows in remembering it.

Coffin stays extremely busy writing incidental music for theaters around the country (“Enron” and “The Incredible Entrance of Chad Deity” at Capital Stage). His next assignment is coincidentally a production of “Animal Crackers” at Denver Center Theatre Company.

The current OSF assignment allowed Coffin to return to his early roots as an actor, when he first worked at OSF, and also indulge his love of theatrical research.

“This is a wonderful adaptation of the show and a wonderful opportunity to re-explore all of this Irving Berlin music,” Coffin said.

Adapter Bedard has mashed together the original 1925 play script, some revisions done to freshen up the production as it ran, and the subsequent movie screenplay, creating an all-new script for the OSF production.

“He compiled all of this and also added his own touch to take into account the three of them – John Tufts, who plays Chico, and Brent Hinkley, who plays Harpo. ... It’s a great script for that crew,” Coffin said. “It’s a funny, fresh take on it, and the musical component is very, very different than ‘Animal Crackers.’ 

Though Berlin was still a young man when he wrote the songs for “The Cocoanuts,” he was already one of the most prominent musical theater artists working.

“He had been a Tin Pan Alley writer. He had already written ‘Alexander’s Rag Time Band’ when he was 23. He’d written a great deal of stuff for the Follies for Ziegfeld, also for his own Follies. He and the producer bought the Music Box Theater, so he was already a theater owner at this time,” Coffin said.

Musical revues were the standard then. Shows with narrative plot lines were still rare.

“This was one of his forays into writing a musical comedy that had a narrative arc, and we’re talking before ‘Show Boat’ and before ‘Of Thee I Sing,’ ” Coffin said. “Kaufman wrote a play for the Marx Brothers in their vernacular.”

And Berlin not only pulled out songs he had used in other places, but also wrote new material for the production.

“The man wrote incredible melodies. This is the ‘God Bless America’ Irving Berlin, the ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’ and ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ Irving Berlin,” Coffin said.

“The great thing about the Irving Berlin we meet in 1925 is we’re getting his baby pictures. It’s a great vintage piece of musical comedy we get to work on and try to put a new coat on,” he said.

“We were a bit of quandary at the beginning of the process because nothing was saved, there was no conductor score from the 1925 production, so we had to re-construct the musical landscape of the show through the Library of Congress and by calling in a bunch of markers with reference librarians at musical libraries across the country,” Coffin said.

He also went to the Irving Berlin Room at the Library of Congress to see what he could uncover in the more than 600 boxes of archival material.

“We found the ‘Cocoanuts’ box and were able to find the original settings of a bunch things we couldn’t find anywhere else – underscores, patter songs. In the ‘Groucho song’ place in the show there had been three different songs in that slot while they were trying out in Philadelphia and Boston,” Coffin said.

“We found the one we wanted to put in – that Mark liked the lyrics most –by going through that box.”

In all Coffin discovered and accounted for 25 songs that were in and out of the original production. The OSF production will use full versions of 17 songs and use others for transitions and underscoring.

“My work was to uncover the actual content – what do these songs sound like?” Coffin said. Once he had the transcriptions or scores, he performed them for the creative team so they could all hear what the music sounded like.

“Then I took to orchestrating and arranging it. I wanted to have fun with the orchestrations and bring this music up to an idea of contemporary setting, more of a standard Broadway pit idea.”

Coffin based his adaptations of the music on Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s Hot Club of France jazz band. For the live orchestra, which accompanies the actors at every performance, Coffin asked for a keyboard. a drum kit, an upright bass, a guitarist who also plays mandolin, banjo, ukelele and typewriter and a violinist.

“They all sing, and there’s a big number called ‘Lucky Boy’ in the first act where the pit all get to come up on stage and sing with the cast, which is a lot of fun,” Coffin said.

“I’m always looking for something to surprise the audience. Something they didn’t expect in the orchestrations and also to just lift the comic potential of all of the songs.”

Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120.

Read more articles by Marcus Crowder

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