Animal Crackers

May 12, 2011

in Plays

Musical by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Composed by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Adapted by Henry Wishcamper

Directed by Spiro Veloudos
Musical Direction by Catherine Stornetta
Choreography by Rachel Bertone

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Boston, MA

May 6 – June 4, 2011

With Calvin Braxton (Hives, Roscoe W. Chandler), Leigh Barrett (Mrs. Rittenhouse), Aimee Doherty (Arabella Rittenhouse/Mrs. Whitehead), Jordan Ahnquist (M. Doucet, Wally Winston, Sgt. Hennessey), Merissa Czyz (Grace Carpenter, Mary Stewart, Girl B), Grant MacDermott (John Parker, Horatius Jamison), Ed Hoopman (Capt. Jeffrey T. Spaulding), Nael Nacer (Emanuel Ravelli), Alycia Sacco (The Professor, Girl A)

Animal Crackers Poster

Before it was made into a movie with the same name, Animal Crackers was, in 1928, a Broadway hit starring the Marx Brothers. This adept and hilarious revival cuts the original cast of twenty in half, fitting it nicely onto the Lyric’s intimate stage while retaining the full force of the play’s crazy energy.

For lovers of the Marx Brothers films, Animal Crackers is one of the greats. It features Groucho as Capt. Jeffrey Spaulding, an African explorer who descends, as the guest of honor, upon a house party given by the impossibly pompous Mrs. Rittenhouse, portrayed in the film by the great Margaret Dumont.

Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont in "Animal Crackers"

At issue, putatively, is Mrs. Rittenhouse’s debut of a painting by the mythical but great artist, Beaugard. During the party, the painting, and various facsimiles, get stolen several times, but, in the end, all the antics enable the romantic lead, a young artist, to have his talents recognized. This is the presumed plot, but it has nothing to do with the surreal superstructure of the piece, created so ably by the great Groucho, Chico and Harpo.

The Marx Brothers inhabit romantic plots, but always as visitors, not as actual participants. Arriving, like Dada extraterrestrials, into these sappy love stories, they become missionaries determined to undo the germs of sentiment that surround them. In this regard, they are the ancestors of Seinfeld‘s heroes, who always subvert romance, rather than of Woody Allen’s desperately amorous, though almost always disappointed, ones. Allen’s characters always venture, and typically fail, in the quest for love, while the Marx Brothers and the Seinfeld gang constantly work riotously at a more anarchic level, artfully bypassing love, and calling everything else into question.

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Because of the notoriety of their films, it is easy to forget that the Marx Brothers were Vaudeville stars before they were film stars, and that Animal Crackers was a stage play before it was a film. Apparently it was a huge hit on Broadway in 1928.

Animal Crackers Poster

The original stage production called for a cast of twenty, but, several years ago, Henry Wishcamper adapted it, for production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, with duplication of some parts so that the cast was reduced to nine.

The Lyric Stage has done a wonderful job of mounting this scaled down adaptation. The production is tight, professional and lots and lots of fun. The staging and choreography are really excellent, and make the intimate setting of the Lyric Stage theatre space come alive. Acting, singing and dancing are extremely good overall and indicate adept direction (Spiro Veloudos), musical direction (Catherine Stornetta) and choreography (Rachel Bertone).

Leigh Barrett & Ed Hoopman in Animal Crackers.
Photo by Mark S. Howard.

Ed Hoopman (Capt. Jeffrey T. Spaulding) is uncannily and amazingly like Groucho in intonation, facial expression, and gesture. All of the leg movements in his dance to the tune Hooray for Captain Spaulding exactly replicate Groucho’s. It is really remarkable. Hoopman’s timing is perfect, his delivery is witty, and he duplicates Groucho’s persona entertainingly, without seeming mannered.

Nael Nacer (Emanuel Ravelli) is a charming Chico. Without forcing it, he manages to capture the endearingly noodled cadence of Chico’s English and the seductively sweet assurance of his persona.

And Alycia Sacco (The Professor) as the Harpo-type is also pitch-perfect, echoing all the subtleties of his gestures adeptly. She does the leg lifting gag with virtuosic ease and she beeps the Harpo-horn with just the right punctuation.

Nael Nacer, Aimee Doherty, Leigh Barrett, and Alycia Sacco, Photo by Mark S. Howard

Nael Nacer, Aimee Doherty, Leigh Barrett,
and Alycia Sacco in Animal Crackers. Photo by Mark S. Howard

The other members of the cast are also great: Calvin Braxton plays Roscoe Chandler amusingly and complements that stuffy role with a sweet, high tenor. Leigh Barrett is a very good Mrs. Rittenhouse – not quite as ditzy as Margaret Dumont, but just pompous and silly enough. Aimee Doherty and Merissa Czyz hold up the extra women’s parts with excellent singing and graceful dancing. Grant MacDermott is the appropriately bland romantic lead, and Jordan Ahnquist is vivid and articulate in his role as Wally Winston, the gossip columnist. His heated parody of gossip blather comes off beautifully.

The Lyric Stage plays in a small theatre, but knows how to put on hugely compelling performances. I saw a wonderful production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the Lyric a number of years ago. Aniticipating this production of Animal Crackers, I hesitated to think it could come close in quality. I was wrong. Though Animal Crackers is not a work of genius on the order of Sondheim’s masterpiece, the Lyric performs it with incredible energy and grace, and it is enormous fun.

After a full run of Marxist antics, the French court scene near the end makes the play feel overly long, but this is a relatively minor quibble for an otherwise entertaining and accomplished production.

Groucho Lisa

– BADMan

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