Marx Bros. redux

Before there was Groucho, Chico and Harpo, there was Julius, Leonard and Adolph.

The story of the brothers Marx before they became the Marx Brothers is the old song-and-dance behind “Minnie’s Boys,” a 1970 Broadway musical — with a book by Groucho’s son Arthur Marx — set for a revival by 42 Street Moon at San Francisco’s Eureka Theater.

“Minnie” is Minnie Marx, the ambitious stage mother who steered her five sons away from Lower East Side turn-of-the-century poverty toward vaudeville stardom.

Anyone who gets all tingly at the mere mention of “A Day at the Races” will probably enjoy a night in the theater watching “Minnie’s Boys,” even though the show was a flop during its initial run.

This time around, the new cast and crew are determined to make it a night to remember.

Choreographer Tom Segal is one of the few Jews involved in the production (even though Minnie and sons were quintessentially Jewish). Being an unabashed Marx Brothers fanatic made it easy for him to sign on with the new production.

“[Greg McClellan] was telling me about the show,” says Segal about his early conversation with the director. “I told him I was a big fan of the Marx Brothers. I like slapstick, comedy, and made a point of learning about the old vaudeville traditions.”

That came in handy when choreographing the show. Even though “Minnie’s Boys” had a full-fledged Broadway run, Segal basically started from scratch.

“Sometimes there are notes or films,” he says of standard musicals, “but most often the choreographer has to create something new, as was the case here and with most of the shows I do.”

Segal says “Minnie’s Boys” is not a big dance show like a Bob Fosse musical but “more comically staged movement. The staging is based on some of the antics [the Marx Brothers] are known for, but I am pretty free to interpret. I like choreography that develops the characters and is part of the story.”

Doing a period play like “Minnie’s Boys” is right up Segal’s alley. He has a background in historical dance and was a member of San Francisco’s Dance Through Time, a company that stages baroque, Edwardian, Renaissance and other period dance pieces.

His love of dance came relatively late in his youth. A native of Lincoln, Neb., Segal grew up in a kosher home. It was also a musical home, with his mother a Broadway buff and his father a jazz nut.

“In high school, I did music and acting,” he says, “and I danced in musicals in college before I had training. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and clerked for a law firm in Lincoln. I was also very involved in Soviet Jewry issues and majored in international relations.”

His global interests led him to spend a year in Israel, where he lived on a kibbutz. “I did folk dancing there and studied modern dance in Tel Aviv,” he says. “Later I transferred to college in Long Island and danced six to eight hours a day.”

That hard work paid off with acting and dancing work in Atlanta and later California, where he moved in 1984. He worked with the San Francisco Opera and went on to become a working dancer, actor, choreographer and teacher of musical theater at Santa Rosa Junior College. Today he lives in San Anselmo.

Though there’s a long tradition of mercilessly mean choreographers (Jerome Robbins of “West Side Story” leaps to mind), Segal wants none of it. “I had some teachers who were brilliant,” he recalls, “but from the old school of ‘Be mean to get results.’ But it’s not necessary. I’m strict in terms of discipline, but I’m easygoing, trying to bring out from the actors what they can.”

With his extensive resume and love of theater, it might come as a surprise that he chose not to live in an entertainment capital like New York or Los Angeles. But aside from loving the Bay Area above all places, Segal says this is a perfectly fine spot to do theater.

“It’s not where you are,” he says. “It’s what you do."

“Minnie’s Boys” plays 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 30 through April 17, at the Eureka Theater, 215 Jackson St., S.F. Tickets: $17- $30. Information: (415) 978-2787.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.