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Animal Crackers

Let's go back to the public stage in the late '20's and early '30's, during the transition between Vaudeville and musical theatre, when a variety of great acts were woven together with a comedic premise, providing evenings of great hilarity, virtuosity, and social commentary.

(Left to right) M. Scott McLean as John Parker, Jim Ferris as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho), Jonathan Randell Silver as The Professor (Harpo), and Jonathan Brody as Emanuel Ravelli (Chico)
(L to R) M. Scott McLean as John Parker,
Jim Ferris as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho),
Jonathan Randell Silver as The Professor (Harpo),
and Jonathan Brody as Emanuel Ravelli (Chico)
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
No one had more fun with this form than the Marx brothers—Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo—on stage and then on film.

In the Denver Center Theatre Company's current production of Animal Crackers—a 1928 stage musical and 1930 film—we have the pleasure of experiencing the charm and zaniness that made this bunch of goofballs one of the all-time favorites of the English-speaking world.

As with so many Depression-era comedies, much of the action takes place in the world of the well-to-do, a palliative and conceit employed to help the disenfranchised forget about their dire circumstances and dream about catching a break.

Jim Ferris as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho)
Jim Ferris as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho)
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
In this case, the wealthy widower, Mrs. Rittenhouse (Celia Tackaberry playing Margaret Dumont, a regular foil of the Marx brothers) is throwing a party in honor of Captain Spaulding (Jim Ferris playing Groucho Marx), a renowned African explorer.

Being the guest of honor gives Groucho non-stop carte blanche to insult everyone with his mile-a-minute quips. Think Robin Williams with a Yiddish twist. Ferris never lets up, matching the legendary Groucho's relentless delivery of zingers. To top it all off, using a (staged?) slip by Roscow W. Chandler (Michael Fitzpatrick), Ferris goes on an improvisational tear (for which Groucho and his brothers were reknowned) and has everyone in stitches.

Celia Tackaberry as Mrs. Rittenhouse and Jonathan Brody as Emanuel Ravelli (Chico)
Celia Tackaberry as Mrs. Rittenhouse and
Jonathan Brody as Emanuel Ravelli (Chico)
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Otherwise, everyone gets in on the act, with more subplots than you can shake a slapstick at, including three romantic relationships—between Mrs. Rittenhouse and Roscow W. Chandler (Michael Fitzpatrick), a wealthy Texan; Mrs. Rittenhouse's daughter, Arabella (Christine Rowan) and Wally Winston (Jeremy Benton), a journalist looking to break a big story; and between Mary Stewart (Stephanie Rothenberg) and John Parker (M. Scott McLean), a struggling, but talented, artist seeking recognition—that undergo a variety of comedic trials.

Given the Vaudevillian structure—filled with a succession of comedy sketches, one liners, and visual gags—there are more special moments than can be accounted for here, but some favorites include Chico's own piano composition "I'm Daffy over You"; the well-known Chico-Harpo scene in which Chico keeps asking Harpo for "a flash" (meaning a flashlight), and Harpo, not understanding, producing a series of objects (from his bottomless trench coat) whose names sound similar; a sparkling tap dance featuring Arabella and Wally; and a sweet duet between Mary and John.

Kudos to director Bruce K. Sevy for pulling out all the stops for the wonderful throwback production, including the live sextet on stage.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Shadowlands runs through April 27th. For tickets: 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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