Animal Crackers – A Laugh Riot at the Garfield

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Horatius Jamison, secretary, and Captain Spaulding, the African explorer, with Hives the butler and Mrs. Rittenhouse, the hostess. Landskroener is picture-perfect as Groucho Marx, voice, mustache and all.  (Ian Ellison, Jim Landskoener, Brad Chaires, Diane Landskroener)     Photo by Jane Jewell

Fans of the Marx Brothers–and of vintage comedy in general–have a treat waiting for them at the Garfield Center. The musical version of Animal Crackers – directed by Jennifer Kafka Smith – is one of the funniest shows to appear on the local stage in recent memory.

Animal Crackers began as a 1928 Broadway musical with a book by George S. Kaufmann and Morrie Ryskind, starring the Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont, Groucho’s long-time comic foil. It was the brothers’ second Broadway hit, running for 191 performances. It was also the brothers’ last stage show since the advent of talking pictures made it possible to transfer their fast-talking brand of comedy to film. The play has been revived several times, starting in 1982, with various changes – notably the substitution of some better-known songs for those in the original musical and the removal of material that today’s audiences are likely to find objectionable. The Garfield’s production is based on a 2009 version produced at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

The musical became the Marx Brothers’ second film in 1930, with most of the principals from the stage show reprising their roles. Lilian Roth took the role of Arabella, the romantic lead. The movie, which is probably the best-known version of the show, was shot in Astoria, New York, where Paramount Pictures had an East Coast studio. And with the film censorship of the Hayes Code still four years in the future, the film was much racier than later Hollywood productions – giving the Marx Brothers a chance to show off their zany brand of humor, including a fair quota of double-entendres. And while several characters and some subplots from the stage version were cut, the movie retained many of the best tunes from the stage show, including “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” which later became Groucho Marx’s TV theme song.   And in case you were wondering, “schnorrer” is a Yiddish word meaning moocher or con artist.

The cast of Animal Crackers in a dance choreographed by Kimberly Stevens.    Photo by Jane Jewell

The plot involves a large party given by Mrs. Rittenhouse, a Long Island society matron. The party features the appearance of Captain Spalding, an African explorer and international celebrity, and the first American exhibition of a famous French painting. Mrs. Rittenhouse is anxious for her daughter, Arabella, to meet a suitable husband. She also wants to reestablish her place in society, which has been eroding since the death of her husband. Guests arrive, including a rich New York businessman, Roscoe W. Chandler, and Mrs. Whitehead, a social rival.

At last Captain Spalding (Groucho’s character) arrives, followed by an Italian musician, Ravelli (Chico’s character) and the Professor (Harpo). And much hilarity ensues, including chases, wisecracks, slapstick, double-talk, puns, songs and dances – and oh yes, a couple of love stories and a plot to steal the painting. None of it makes much sense – really, did you expect it to? – and this production makes no attempt to tie it all together. It’s just one heck of a lot of fun.  Enjoy the ride and forget about the destination.

Capt. Spaulding and Ravelli examine the forged painting as the two lovers look on, Photo by Jane Jewell

With so little story, the play depends heavily on the casting, and the local theater community has risen to the occasion. Jim Landskroener takes the role of Captain Spalding, complete with a painted-on Groucho mustache, and he gives a brilliant performance. Whether he’s reeling off a string of nonsense, mugging at the audience, dancing, or delivering a patter song, he’s a thoroughly believable Groucho, right down to the accent. This role is the key to the whole production, and it’s right on target.

Kirby Powell is hilarious as the Professor, the Harpo Marx character. It’s a role that calls for a wide repertory of physical schtick, and Powell does it with verve – all without saying a single word.   In grand Harpo style, the Professor toots his little hand-held, squeeze-bulb horn and chases women up and down stairs.  And it wouldn’t be Harpo if he didn’t play the harp at least once.  This performance really has to be seen to be believed.

The Marx Brothers live at the Garfield!     Photo by Jane Jewell

Ravelli, the con man/musician of the play, is played by Zac Ryan. His character, originally played by Chico Marx, is a variation on an age-old comic theme, the conniving servant who lives by his wits. Ryan does a great job with the character, including the Italian accent and the physical schtick for some of his bits with the Professor. Very nicely done.

Diane Landskroener, a fine comic actress in her own right, has a juicy role as Mrs. Rittenhouse. A stereotypical social climber, this character gives the actress plenty of opportunity to mock the upper classes and their pretensions. And as a foil to Groucho’s absurdities, Mrs. Rittenhouse has a full platter of double-takes, sputtering outrage, and shocked decorum to deploy – and Landskroener does it all in fine style.

Another key role is Hives, the butler – well played by Brad Chaires, who deploys a formidable deadpan while trying to preserve decorum and delivering straight lines. And when he steps out of the role, it’s even funnier. A good bit of casting!

There are two romantic subplots, featuring Dan Guidice and Gretchen Sachse, and Natalie Lane and Bee Betley. The young lovers get to deliver some of the better songs in the show, including “Three Little Words” (Lane and Betley) and “Watching the Clouds Go By” (Guidice and Sachse).  All four have good voices that are showcased nicely by their duets and ensemble numbers.

Betley plays Wally Winston, the intrepid reporter cum gossip columnist who wants to get the scoop on the various celebrities and big-wigs at the party, with an eye to getting a raise and a promotion.  He teams up with Arabella (Natalie Lane), Mrs. Rittenhouse’s flapper daughter who is looking both for a fiancé and a way to raise her family’s social profile.  Wally, handsome and charming, is the perfect candidate for both!  Unfortunately, one of the scandalous tidbits about the various famous guests that she whispers to Wally instead of earning him a bonus puts his job in jeopardy.  But it seems that this romance of opportunity might even survive poverty and obscurity.

On the other hand, true love is the name of the game for Wally’s photographer colleague, Mary Stewart, played by Gretchen Saches.  She is secretly engaged to the struggling artist John Parker played by Dan Guidice.  Together they plot to substitute his painting for the famous painting on display at the party.  Of course, their plot goes astray in the most hilarious way.

The cast of Animal Crackers at the Garfield.      Photo by Jane Jewell

Mike Heffron is convincing as millionaire Roscoe Chandler, and Julie Lawrence displays a nice French accent as Madame Doucet, an art impresario. Mallory Westlund does a good job as Mrs. Whitehead, Mrs. Rittenhouse’s social rival, conniving convincingly with Grace (Brianna Johnson) to bring down Mrs. Rittenhouse. And Ian Ellison, as Horatius Jamison, Spaulding’s secretary, is one of the few characters who manages to fluster Groucho – in a role originally played by Zeppo Marx.

M.G. Brosius, Brooke Ezzo, and Robin Wood contribute solidly, singing and dancing in the ensemble and doing the occasional bit of stage business without a hitch.

Barbi Bedell outdoes herself with the costumes for this production – all period-perfect and all visually stunning. Likewise, the set, designed by Kafka Smith and built by Jim Landskroener, is both striking and functional. The grand double staircase completes the image of a mansion and the provides a perfect setting both for chase scenes and ensemble song and dance numbers.  Michelle Sensenig provides flawless piano accompaniment–with some help from Chico Marx. A couple of the singers/actors were hard to hear, even from the front of the auditorium; and there were occasional pitch problems with a few of the musical numbers but these problems do not spoil the overall performance.

Choreographer Kimberly Stevens deserves special mention for the energetic dance scenes in which the entire ensemble stepped and twirled in the Charleston and other authentic dances of the era.

The social-climbing Mrs. Rittenhouse (Diane Landskroener) greets her rivals Mrs. Whitehead (Mallory Westlund ) and Grace Carpenter (Brianna Johnson). Photo by Jane Jewell

Kafka Smith said she has been a Marx Brothers fan for as long as she can remember, with Animal Crackers a particular favorite. It shows in this production — everyone involved is obviously having fun, and the fun is contagious. She studied old Marx brothers films in order to flawlessly reproduce the various signature bits of “business” that the Marx brothers were known for.  You will love the bit with the cardboard table.

The show would be a good introduction to the theater for young playgoers; the raunchier bits of the movie version have been edited out, while the antics are fully intact – if anything, they’re funnier seen live on stage. This really is one of the funniest shows you’re likely to see any time soon, a laugh riot from start to finish.  Both kids and adults will love the slapstick while older teens and adults will appreciate the outrageous puns and the not-so-subtle mockery of social pretensions.  This show is hilarious. Go see it!

Animal Crackers runs through Sept. 30, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission; $15 for seniors and military personnel; and $10 for students. For reservations, call 410-810-2060 or visit www.garfieldcenter.org.

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