Animal Crackersby George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. Music and Lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Adapted and Directed by Henry Wishcamper.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"This would be a better world for children if parents had to eat the spinach."
Sound film had just been born into this world. "The Jazz Singer" was a universal hit and Jewish culture, language and stereotypes were taking over the entertainment world. The four Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo, were flying high on Broadway with their third hit in a row, "I’ll Say She Is," "The Cocoanuts" and now "Animal Crackers." It opened on October 23, 1928 and ran for a 191 performances, not a hit by current standards, but still a good run in that era. While playing the new play they were filming their previous show across the East River in Astoria, Queens. They would do the same thing with the new show, their last as it would turn out to be, for they became with "Animal Crackers" full-fledged Hollywood stars.
It never really mattered what characters the brothers were assigned to play; they were always the Marx Brothers. It didn’t matter, either, who wrote their dialogue. By the time they opened most of it was rewritten by Groucho or Chico or Gummo anyway. That music would always play a role in their stories was a given: Chico played a mean piano and Harpo played, well, the harp. Groucho enjoyed singing, if you could call it singing and the trio (with Zeppo during their early years at Paramount) could be counted on to perfect their scripts before shooting them, often taking scenes from their projected films and playing in Vaudeville houses until they had perfected the routines, found all of the laughs ahead of time.
In this new stage-play, "Animal Crackers," all of the classic Marx Brothers characters are in place: Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, Emmanuel Ravelli and the Professor as played by Groucho, Chico and Harpo; Horatio Jamison as portrayed by Zeppo; Mrs. Rittenhouse by Margaret Dumont. The actors in Williamstown at the Theater Festival’s first offering of summer are playing at two levels. They play the actors playing the roles and in many cases they are also playing two major roles at the same time. Under Henry Wishcamper’s guidance they manage to pull off this nearly impossible task.
Mara Davi, for instance, plays the rambunctious Arabella Rittenhouse whose love affair with gossip columnist Wally Winston, played by Joey Sorge is played out in song in one of Kalmar and Ruby’s best songs interpolated into this show, "Three Little Words" and in the second act opener "Long Island Low Down." The brittle, brassy edge to her voice lends itself brilliantly to both character and song styling. Between the two numbers she sings a duet as Mrs. Whitehead, the villain of the piece with her partner-in-crime, Grace. So good is Ms. Davi that I never actually realized she had changed characters and, indeed, I missed the older Whitehead woman in the curtain calls. I never put the two characters together because Ms. Davi makes them so different and so wonderful.
Likewise Renée Elise Goldsberry’s Grace Carpenter is an evil counterpart of Goldsberry’s ingenue sweetie, Mary, the photographer who loves young artist John Parker. "Why Am I So Romantic?" they sing (another interpolated song) leading to their nearly show-stopping "Watching the Clouds Roll By."
John Parker is played by Adam Chanler-Berat who also takes on Jamison, the assistant to Captain Spaulding. Like the others he makes them very different characters, not ever to be confused with one another. Jacob Ming-Trent plays Hives, the butler, and the very wealthy Roscoe W. Chandler, a doubling chore that includes him introducing himself in a way that later leads to his unmasking as yet a third character.
If you’re not confused as yet let me say that the three principal Marx brothers play only one role each (other than an early set of footmen) and that is all they need to do for they are still playing historically accurate actors playing historically relevant types.
"Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer. ‘Did someone call me schnorer?’ Hooray, Hooray, Hooray!" is perhaps the most defining song ever performed by an actor. Groucho made it so much a signature that even on television that theme defined him on a game show he hosted. That the question in the middle didn’t get a laugh is the only disappointment of the entire enterprise. As this is being sung by the denizens of Long Island High Society folk, the question with its reversion to Yiddish is so typically New York Vaudeville of its time it is clearly out of keeping. Without even knowing the word (it means beggar or cheap person or slow spender depending on circumstances) the sound of it, so foreign to this setting, should garner a laugh. Mine was the only chuckle I heard, but that may change with future audiences.
Brad Aldous does a fabulous job as Harpo’s The Professor. He is quirky, physical and even a bit frightening as he pursues women around the stage and out into the audience. He is sexuality in a mute child let loose and running rampant. Even his sweet turn on the harp is in character and the fantasy that plays around it is both charming and just spot on.
As his brother Chico playing Ravelli Jonathan Brody has a wonderful time with look, accent and gestures. His solos on piano are so much in Chico’s personal style that it is easy to forget that he isn’t really Chico.
Kudos to Joey Slotnick as Groucho’s Spaulding. He never seems to resort to imitation, and yet every moment, every memory of the film’s Groucho Marx is right there on stage. There is a difference between a stand-up comic’s impression of someone famous and this portrayal of a real man in a role. This is not parody. This is acting and it is absolutely first-rate.
Ellen Harvey’s portrayal of Mrs. Rittenhouse is just what the doctor ordered. She is both funny and charming, ala Dumont, but she does not imitate or emulate, she creates her own version of both characters, actress and role.
Wishcamper’s edition of the show is delectable. Four of the original songs are gone and the rest are moved about to serve the plot. Five excellent tunes have been inserted where necessary and the book sparkles with wit that feels like it should always have been there. George S. Kaufman once remarked that he attended a performance of one of his Marx Brothers shows and actually heard a line of dialogue he wrote, and in this version he might just say the same thing. But that was the fun of the four funny men and that is also represented here.
Robin Vest’s set is perfection and Jenny Mannis’ costumes are a perfect match. Matthew Richards’ lighting of the show is so evocative of a time in the commercial theater when too much was just enough that it must be applauded. The same may be said of Doug Peck's fine orchestrations. Choreographer John Carrafa evokes the period and leaves the audience longing to participate and special note must be made of the outrageously wonderful physical comedy movement by director Paul Kalina.
Artistic Director Jenny Gersten has a triumphant hit on her hands as producer of the Festival’s opening show on the mainstage. Wouldn’t it be a tribute to her if the show could be extended or live on somewhere! I know I’d see it again and again for the fun it provides.
Brad Aldous, Joey Slotnick, Jonathan Brody
Animal Crackers plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s mainstage at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance at 1000 Main Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts through July 13. For information or tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line to www.wtfestival.org.