Animal Crackers a Crackup at Williamstown

Marx Brothers Zany Musical Comedy Soars

By: - Jun 28, 2013

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Animal Crackers
Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Music and Lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Adapted and directed by Henry Wishcamper
Director of physical comedy, Paul Kalina; Choreographer, John Carrafa; Scenic Design, Robin Vest, Costume design, Jenny Mannis; Lighting Design, Matthew Richards; Sound Design, Drew Levy; Original orchestrations, Doug Peck; Music director, Kris Krull; Production stage manager, David Sugarman; Production manager, Eric Nottke; Casting  Calleri Casting
Cast: Jacob Ming-Trent (Hives, Roscoe W. Chandler), Brad Aldous (Footman, The Professor), Jonathan Brody (Footman, Emmanuel Ravelli), Joey Slotnick (Footman, Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding), Ellen Harvey (Mrs. Rittenhouse), Joey Sorge (Monsieur Doucet, Wally Winston), Mara Davi (Arabella Rittenhouse, Mrs. Whitehead), Renee Elise Goldsberry (Grace Carpenter, Mary), Adam Chanler-Berat (John Parker, Horatius Jamison). Mara Davi, Dance Captain.
Williamstown Theatre Festival
Main Stage
June 26 to July 13

Last night the Williamstown Theatre Festival launched its 59th season with a double barreled blast of dual openings of the musical revival of the theatre version of Animal Crackers by the Marx Brothers on the Main Stage and a world premiere of American Hero on its Nikos Stage.

Dressed in black cutaway tails, a la Groucho Marx, artistic director Jenny Gersten welcomed the audience to her third season. Then, later in the show, streaked down the aisle and across the stage with the randy Harpo on her tail.

It was just the kind of improv that the Marx Brothers loved with no great allegiance to the script. There were numerous witty asides in a madcap version of a classic Mark Brothers play and film adapted and directed with great energy, wit and creativity by Henry Wishcamper. He is reviving a 2009 production of the musical comedy for Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. From that production he again cast the brilliant team of Joey Slotnick and Jonathan Brody in the essential roles of Groucho, as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, and Chico as the ersatz Italian immigrant and bounder Emmanuel Ravelli. Rounding the trio as Harpo/ The Professor was the fabulous physical comedy of Brad Aldous.

As we have come to expect from Broadway quality WTF productions the curtain parted to reveal a stunning art deco flavored set by Robin Vest. It comprised a horseshoe shaped grand staircase surrounding the six piece orchestra. There were vertical lunettes with shades which were raised in the second act for an inventive staging of “Watching the Clouds Roll By.”

Groucho quipped “You won’t see that in Bridges of Madison County.” The new musical, based on the film, is scheduled for later in the season.

At the top of the stairs was a curtain designed for a series of grand entrances.

There was inventive and mood enticing lighting by Matthew Richards. The following spots, however, did not always remain on target. During a bit in which an actor engaged a member of the audience down front the spotlight, curiously, lingered way too long after the sequence was over. Why were we looking at that lady?

The costumes designed by Jenny Mannis were stunning and unencumbered enough to allow the dancers freedom. The getups of the Marx Brothers were suitably silly with Groucho in jodhpurs and pith helment and Harpo equiped with the appropriate, multi pocketed, booster's trench coat. In one skit Harpo is stripped to his colorful skivvies racing around the set shooting at people. Hilariously, that ended when the orchestra picked up heaters and feigned to fire back.

The silly premise of the paper thin plot is a formal reception for the great African explorer, Captain Spaulding, in the Long Island mansion of the rich and pretentious Mrs. Rittenhouse (Ellen Harvey).

There is an over milked device of announcing the characters by the portly butler, Hives (Jacob Ming-Trent) who also doubles as the Texas tycoon Roscoe W. Chandler. Just when the trope wears thin he announces Captain Spaulding. Our eyes focus on a large trunk at the top of the stairs.

Instead Captain Spaulding pops out of a smaller one at the edge of the stage. From then on, with Groucho off and running, it was non stop madcap fun.

During the 1920s average Joes became millionaires speculating on Wall Street. There was a lot of paper wealth and with it a similarly artificial aura of crass nouveau riche social status and class pretension. Investors bought on margin. A hundred bought a thousand dollars worth of stock. Until the market crashed.

It wiped out the ersatz millionaires including Groucho who was heavily invested in speculative stocks.

Animal Crackers opened on October 23, 1928 and ran for 191 performances. It was still the peak of euphoria of the Roaring Twenties when the mob kept the champagne flowing during Prohibition. America, like this silly, frothy musical comedy, was running on vapors.

It was a great period for comedy making its way from vaudeville and Broadway to the then relatively early development of talkies and Hollywood. The movies had just found their voice with Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer in 1927. The Cocoanuts (1929) was the first feature-length Marx Brothers movie, produced by Paramount Pictures. Animal Crackers was filmed in 1930 at the onset of the Great Depression when Americans needed a laugh.

Many of the great comics of the silent screen struggled to make the transition to talkies. It was perfect, however, for the Marx Brothers with the intricate word play of Groucho often in absurdist exchanges with Chico. Harpo remained mute.

Of all of the great comic stars of his era Groucho remains uniquely complex and iconic. He was misanthropic, arrogant, mean, mocking and anarchistic in his takedown of any semblance of class and pretension. He crafted an indelible persona with stooped posture, painted on moustache, granny glasses and self deprecating parodic movements. He never walked so much as tilted his way through space. Slotnick's simulations of his ungainly yet oddly graceful dance moves were utterly uncanny. There were the smarmy, nasty, eye rolling asides punctuated with a dip of the tip of a never lit cigar. Groucho was always the brightest bulb on the tree even in the midst of lights out mayhem.

Like gypsies all of life was a scam for the mad Marx Brothers.  Su casa e mi casa. They were flat out con artists and comic grifters. Add to that Harpo as mime, pick pocket and petty thief. Mid way between Groucho and the over the top Harpo was the irony of Chico. He was a cool, existential observer of the human comedy always played to his unique advantage. Often he played the not so straight man in convoluted cockamany exchanges with Groucho. Chico could brilliantly counter punch Groucho's verbal jabs.

Those are tough roles and shoes to fill. In this production the casting, not just of the Marx Brothers, but all of the minor characters, was absolutely spot on.

In most Marx Brothers films the plot and other characters, as such, are just filler between brilliant skits and sizzling cracks. Other than the society matrons, wonderfully fleshed out by the fabulous Margaret Dumont, the other actors were eminently forgettable.

Not so in this production. They all sing and dance up a storm. Plot be damned. Who cares when you saw the divine Mara Davi (Arabella Rittenhouse and Mrs. Whitehead) in sublimely choreographed (by Jon Carrafa) duets with a superb partner Joey Sorge (gossip reporter Wally Winston). They were just heavenly in “Three Little Words.” Then again in the second act in “Long Island Low Down.”

Keep an eye out for Renee Elise Goldsberry an utterly gorgeous, captivating and awesomely talented singer and dancer playing a dual role as Grace Carpenter and Mary. Surely we will be seeing more of her on Broadway.

Of course there was a fabulous version of the production number, later a signature for Groucho, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.”

One of the greatest challenges of playing the Marx Brothers is capturing their multi valent talent. In addition to their skill as actors both Chico and Harpo were also brilliant musicians who brought unique comedy to their playing.

It was astonishing to see Brody perform the incredibly complex and hilarious piano stunt of Chico. On film the camera was able to focus in on Chico's intricate and precise fingering. Brody was less legible, but no less impressive, from our seats at the back of the theatre. Aldous was game but less successful cloning the inimitable Harpo on harp. It’s a tough instrument and nobody, but nobody, played it with the invention and genius of Harpo.

Ok. I didn’t see the point of the opening of the second act. Ming-Trent in front of the curtain stepped out of character and talked with the audience. Including “How ya’ll doing.” Like Gersten before the first act I expected a speech or announcement. Instead in an interval that just made no sense he serenaded a lady at the front of the house with “Keep Your Undershirt On.” He then returned to the stage and before a drawn curtain was joined by Harvey who parted a dressing robe to reveal her lingerie. Huh!

Perhaps we can treat it as the device of breaking the space between the stage and the audience. There were lots of gags and bits that did that.

In the midst of all this there was a drift about a stolen or appropriated painting. By the midst of the second act, however, it seems like they just tore up the script. Not that it really matters. What was happening on stage like “Four of the Three Musketeers” didn’t make sense but was wildly imaginative and entertaining.

Who cares?

This was not an evening of heavy lifting, deconstruction and deep thinking.

Presumably that will come as the season evolves.

Last night we were utterly entertained.