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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Animal Crackers

"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I don't know!"— Captain Spaulding
Animal Crackers
Pictured (L to R): Mara Davi and Joey Slotnick (GROUCHO)
Photo credit: T Charles Erickson
Every American of a certain age knows the film Animal Crackers starring the Marx Brothers. Adapted from a 1928 play by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind with music by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, it is the vehicle that made the Marx Brothers major stars after working in burlesque and vaudeville for almost thirty years.

Well, Hooray for Captain Spaulding (Did someone call him Schnorrer?) and all of his irrepressible cohorts as the Marx Brothers invade Williamstown Theatre Festival. The energetically reimagined adaptation by director Henry Wishcamper features songs and skits pasted together in this tribute to the pandemonium which ensued whenever the Marx Brothers appeared.

The paper-thin plot harkens back to musicals of the early 20th century, but it is always Groucho, Chico and Harpo whose rapid-fire, sometimes ad-libbed jokes and screwball shtick enhanced by the strains of Kalmar/Ruby (Hooray for Captain Spaulding, Three Little Words, Show Me a Rose) who move the show and captivate the audience. The seven-piece orchestra's command of center stage serves as the fulcrum of musically integrated action, and the actors segue seamlessly from dialogue to musical numbers with the orchestra's support and involvement. Everyone in this nine-member cast performs double duty. The constant reinvention of characters captures the frenzied hilarity and helps bring to life the 1928 ambience of controlled chaos.

The evening opens at Mrs. Rittenhouse's (Ellen Harvey) Long Island estate. As the various stock character guests arrive to view Mrs. Rittenhouse's prized painting and meet her honored guests. Everyone is obviously awaiting the moment when the intrepid African explorer Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding will arrive.

Played by a wild eye-rolling, cigar-waving slouched ghost of Groucho, Joey Slotnik reprises his role from the 2009 Goodman Theatre production . Accompanied by his sidekick, Chico, the pseudo Italian Senor Ravelli, (Jonathan Brody also from that production), create the frenzied madness we expect of the collision of the pompous elite and the disenfranchised buffoons. Brad Aldous rounds out the trio as The Professor, using Harpo's silence to suggest a suppressed menace. Though he lacks Harpo's elfin cuteness and flashing eyes, Aldous does enough damage to keep the victims of his unrestrained nuttiness running for cover.

The romantic sub-plot between the young Arabella Rittenhouse (Mara Davi) and Wally Winston, the society reporter (Joey Sorge), bewitches with charming song and dance numbers choreographed by John Carrafa. Their easy grace finesses the glamour of the time period.

The fluidity of all of the dancers is a wonderful counterpoint to the comedic cavorting which erupts with riotous frequency. Special kudos to Paula Kalina as Director of Physical Comedy. The polished pratfalls add to the pleasure of the campy shenanigans as the actors run riot over the stage, aisles and audience.

The second subplot involves a stolen painting, a sincere young artist (John Parker) and his shy but determined girlfriend Mary (Renee Elise Goldsberry) whose beautiful voices combine in "Why am I so Romantic?" Ms. Goldsberry's voice is lush and moves from blues to ballad with a captivating thrum which embellishes Kalmar/Rubys musical genius.

"Watching the Clouds Roll By" in Act Two is a hilarious homage to big production numbers of 20's musicals while "The Professor's Dream" allows Wishcamper to resurrect The Madame DuBarry skit which was cut from the film and which , as befits this madcap romp, seems to rise as a non-sequitur. But who cares? It's just another excuse for elaborate French costumes, the rousing sendup Four of the Three Musketeers, and more hijinks!

Jacob Ming-Trent as Hives and Roscoe W. Chandler displays his many-sided and considerable talents as another of the trio's foils. He is victimized by them as both the supercilious but duplicitous butler, and the pompous pseudo-philanthropist. Leave it to the boys to smell out a fellow trickster. And though she isnt Margaret Dumont, Ellen Harveys Mrs. Rittenhouse exudes enough haughtiness for all the great Long Island estates of the time.

Of course, it wouldn't be a night of Marx madness without the virtuoso piano playing of Chico and a few strums on the harp by the ersatz Professor. It's all here. And it's lit in voluptuous elegance by Matthew Richards whose warm summery glow illuminates an estate-like opulence from the 20's as conceived by Robin Vest and includes an extravagantly stylized chandelier.

The flowing costumes of the women remind us of a more formal time when clothes were beautifully tailored, shaped by gussets and darts which accentuated feminine curves. They stand out in stark contrast to the cavorting fools in their recognizable get-ups.

But it is the memorable lines such as 'Ever since I met you, I've swept you off my feet," uttered by the inimitable master of ad lib and innuendo, "The Great Groucho" himself, that make us realize how much we miss these remarkable social critics for whom nothing was sacred.

Take the kids and grandkids for a rollicking visit to the kings of absurdity and then you wont have to explain their undying appeal.

Animal Crackers
Book by George S. Kaufman & Morrie Ryskind
Music and Lyrics by Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby
Choreographed by John Carrafa
Physical Comedy Direction by Paul Kalina
Adapted and Directed by Henry Wishcamper
Cast: Jacob Ming-Trent (Hives, Roscoe W. Chandler, et al.) Brad Aldous (Footman, The Professor, et al.) Jonathan Brody (Footman, Emmanuel Ravelli, et al.) Joey Slotnick (Footman, Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, et al.) Ellen Harvey (Mrs. Rittenhouse,) Joey Sorge (Monsieur Doucet, Wally Winston, et al.) Mara Davi (Annabella Rittenhouse, Mrs. Whitehead, et al.) Renee Elise GoldBerry (Grace Carpenter, Mary, et al.) Adam Chanler-Berat (John Parker, Horatius Jamison, et al.)
Scene Design: Robin Vest
Costume Design: | Jenny Mannis
Lighting Design: Matthew Richards
Sound Design: Drew Levy
Musical Director: Kris Kuku
Previews 6/26/13; opening 6/27/13; closing 7/13/13
Performances: Tuesday -Saturday at 7:30; Sunday matinee at 2:00; July 4 no evening, there will be a 4:00 performance.
Tickets: $70.00; Children 18 and under half-off , free Friday nights with the purchase of a full-price ticket
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at June 29th performance
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