The late, great Groucho Marx comes to life in the Playhouse in the Park Shelterhouse Theatre as if he was at the height of his movie career in the 1930s, between roles in "Animal Crackers," "Duck Soup," "A Night At The Opera" or "A Day At The Races."
With great passion and precision, Frank Ferrante performs Groucho's funniest one-liners as Rufus T. Firefly, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, opportunistic opera agent Otis B. Driftwood and Capt. Jeffrey T.Spaulding, the African explorer, who went into the jungle where all the monkeys throw nuts. (If I stay here I'll go nuts.) Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
Eighty years later, Groucho's greatest hits still get great big laughs:
"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know."
"I've got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it."
Being a lifelong Marx Brothers fan, I had heard them all many, many times. But I laughed heartily again with the Sunday night preview audience, as I marveled at how Ferrante flawlessly channeled Groucho. Truly it was a case of, as Groucho once said, "Don't stop me if you've heard this before, because I want to hear it again."
Like me, Ferrante discovered Groucho as a kid in the 1960s. Ferrante brings his childhood idol to life cavorting around (and over) the simple set in the intimate Shelterhouse – a small desk; a dusty chaise lounge sofa; a coffee table; a hat tree for Capt. Spaulding's pith helmet and Dr. Hackenbush's stethoscope; and the grand piano for accompanist Gerald Sternbach. A theater marquee was lighted over the stage, and Marx Brothers movie posters decorated the walls.
Ferrante, 54, in an interview with me to be broadcast later this month on WVXU-FM's "Around Cincinnati," tells me this is the most elaborate staging in 33 years doing his one-man Groucho shows. (His first off-Broadway performance was in 1986 at age 22.)
One of the coolest parts of the show was the opening, when the audience watches Ferrante transform himself into the one, the only. Groucho!
He walks on stage as himself, and continues speaking as he takes off his overcoat, sits at a small desk, and smears thick black greasepaint for Groucho's iconic mustache and eyebrows.
Instantly the audience is transported back to the 1930s, and he's ready to sing "Hello, I Must Be Going," "Lydia The Tattooed Lady," "Whatever It Is I'm Against It" or "Hooray For Captain Spaulding."
What I didn't expect was Ferrante going off script, departing from Groucho's stories about his brothers and mother, or co-stars and contemporaries (Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields, to name two). Some of the biggest laughs came from Ferrante's 1930's Groucho chatting with (and insulting) folks in the audience, similar to the 1950's Groucho exchanges on his "You Bet Your Life" radio and TV quiz shows. Think of the improv as Groucho's subversive Marxisms unplugged.
"You have pretty eyes. Well, at least one of them," he told a woman in the front row.
Talking to a couple married 53 years, the wife answered all his questions because her husband was nearly speechless. Prompting Ferrante to exclaim: "Welcome to An Evening with Harpo!"
Playing with the audience and pianist Sternbach gives him a opportunity to throw in Groucho zingers not in the 90-minute script.
You don't have to be a Marx Brothers fanatic to enjoy this show.
When longtime Marx Brothers fans get together, they often debate which movie was the best: "Duck Soup?" "Animal Crackers?" "A Night At The Opera? "A Day at the Races?"
Now I have a new favorite: A Night At The Shelterhouse!
Hello, I must be going…. to see Frank Ferrante again in "An Evening with Groucho." Hooray for Frank Ferrante!
Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
Frank Ferrante's "An Evening with Groucho" runs through Dec. 17 at the Shelterhouse Theatre. Ticket information and show times are at Playhouse website here.