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Chicago by John Olson

Animal Crackers
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of Yeast Nation (the triumph of life) and Richard's review of Fake

Animal Crackers
Clockwise from top: Ora Jones, Ed Kross, Joey Slotnick, Molly Brennan, Jonathan Brody
The well-heeled audiences and highly professional staff of the Goodman might be the sorts of targets the Marx Brothers would have enjoyed skewering. That possibility was not lost on the theatre's staff. As if to ward off any temptation among the more anarchic members of the audience to throw a leg on the lap of a society matron, insult an usher or cut in two the tie of a box office manager, the Goodman has gotten into the spirit of its revival of this 1928 Marx Brothers musical by outfitting its staff in Groucho glasses, eyebrows and noses. Good thing, too. The infectious fun of this flapper musical complete with dead-on impressions of Groucho, Harpo and Chico could be dangerous. Probably never in its history has the Goodman been this wacky—with the possible exception of its Strange Interlude as interpreted by the Neo-Futurists this past March. That similarity did not pass unnoticed either. Ironically, the marathon Eugene O'Neill play that was a sensation at the time of Animal Crackers' Broadway debut got a poke in this musical's original script, and it gets a few extra digs here.

If one wants to enjoy the fun of a 1920s musical, this production proves there's no need to concoct a pastiche like The Drowsy Chaperone when you can bring back the real deal. Animal Crackers has been respectfully adapted from George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind's original book by director Henry Wishcamper, with all the famous lines and routines of the stage musical and its 1920 film version intact. The musical's songs by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby—including "Hooray for Captain Spaulding," the number that eventually became Groucho's signature theme—have been supplemented with additional numbers by the duo, like "Everyone Says I Love You" sung by Chico. Broadway's John Carrafa has choreographed the numbers stunningly, including some especially impressive athletic turns by Tony Yazbeck and Mara Davi as one of the young romantic couples, and Davi and Jessie Mueller in "The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me" (written by Swanstone, McCarron and Morgan). Carrafa is also naughtily clever in the olio number called "Keep Your Undershirt On" performed by Stanley Wayne Mathis and "Vaudeville Girls" that opens act two. The full company joins Yazbeck and Davi for the big production number "Long Island Low Down" and backs up Ed Kross and Mueller for a rendition of "Watching the Clouds Roll By" in which the company is dressed in cloudlike hoop skirts.

As was typical of the musicals of this era, Animal Crackers has only the thinnest of plots to hold together a potpourri of songs, dances and comedy routines. But, with the Marx Brothers, what comedy routines they were! In the hands of the trio taking the Brothers roles here, they're just as funny now. Joey Slotnick, though not a perfect match to Groucho vocally, has all of Groucho's mannerisms, postures and timing down pat in the character of Captain Spaulding. Jonathan Brody is about as perfect a replica of Chico as one could imagine as Emanuel Ravelli. Molly Brennan—a comedienne with deep roots in Chicago comedy companies—plays the Harpo role of the Professor. She makes the character just little bit more her own rather than a straight replica of Harpo. She's more deadpan and less sweet than the Harpo, but her interpretation works all the same and is no less satisfying than the other two "brothers." In fact, one really does stop comparing the three here to the specific voices and nuances of the originals after the first 20 minutes or so.

Those who can actually remember what Zeppo looked like may note that Ed Kross looks nothing like him, but he serves the function of straight man to Groucho quite capably as Captain Spaulding's assistant, Jamison. And also in the no-resemblance-to-the-original department, but quite satisfactory anyway, is Ora Jones in the Margaret Dumont role of society matron Mrs. Rittenhouse. Jones is certainly younger and less statuesque than was Dumont, but I'll bet Dumont would have been unable to carry off the dance steps like Ms. Jones does, and Jones does a wonderful job of mimicking Dumont's hoity-toity voice and befuddled reactions to Groucho's jibes. A Clowning Director, Paul Kalina, is credited with contributing to the hilarity of the production.

Wishcamper has created the feeling of a big musical very economically as everyone in the cast of nine has dual roles (even Slotnick, Brody and Brennan—they're in a few ensemble numbers out of their Marx Brothers costumes). The single set by Robin Vest is a sumptuous ballroom of the Rittenhouse estate. Jenny Mannis's costumes not only accurately copy the look of the original Marx Brothers signatures as well as period society wear, but are wildly creative in the outfits for the production numbers, like the aforementioned cloud dresses and 18th century French evening wear for the "Four of the Three Musketeers" finale.

A night at the Goodman, like a night at the opera, is usually an "event" and almost always an opportunity to see stimulating theater. You don't necessarily think of it as a rollicking good time, but it is now with this production. It may be getting tiring to hear Chicago theatre professionals and fans boasting about the next show we may send out to New York, but for the second or third time in this short season, in Animal Crackers we have another one worthy of the move.

Animal Crackers will be performed through November 1, 2009 in the Goodman's Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. For ticket information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org, the Box Office, or call 312-443-3800.


Photo: Eric Y. Exit    

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-- John Olson



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