By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review
“The world would not be in such a snarl, had Marx been Groucho instead of Karl.” —Irving Berlin
Leave your critical and logical faculties at home when you head for Cygnet Theatre’s wild and woolly staging of the classic goofball Marx Brothers musical “Animal Crackers.”
Most people know the 1930 film “Animal Crackers,” a truncated version that cut most of the songs. Now, Cygnet Theatre recreates the era and brings back the brothers in Henry Wishcamper’s stage adaptation of the original 1928 Broadway musical.
The show offers a paper-thin plot that exists for no other reason than to serve as a playpen for the zany Marx Brothers to play in, around and on. Nine actors play 22 characters; none of the plot makes much sense, and the show consists mostly of jokes — corny, clever, visual, punny, silly — you name it, this show delivers.
Set designer Sean Fanning contributes the physical space: the huge, fancy house of Mrs. Rittenhouse, who this evening is giving a party in honor of Capt. Jeffrey T. Spaulding (aka Groucho), a celebrated explorer recently returned from Africa. Also on the dance card is the unveiling of a valuable Beaugard painting newly acquired by Mrs. Rittenhouse.
For a public figure, Spaulding (played magnificently by Josh Odsess-Rubin) is a bit of an embarrassment, with his greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, stooped gait and willingness to skewer anybody or anything for a laugh. And there are plenty of characters around to make fun of.
Take Russell Garrett as Mrs. Rittenhouse’s officious head butler Hives, who does a splendidly funny song — “Keep Your Undershirt On” — with Mrs. R at the top of the second act. Garrett also plays snooty western millionaire Roscoe W. Chandler, who turns out to have a deliciously low-class secret.
Mrs. Rittenhouse (played by Melinda Gilb with great humor and a full range of shocked expressions as the Brothers get more and more uncontrollable) is beginning to despair of marrying off daughter Arabella (Lauren King Thompson). “I do wish you’d take this more seriously,” she says. “Here you are a debutante. You’ve been out two months and you aren’t engaged to a single person.”
Mom has gossip columnist Wally Winston (Chaz Feuerstine) in mind. Not a bad choice — he is pretty cute. He writes for Evening Traffic, the local rag, and is looking for a scandal to report on. He asks Arabella if she can contribute anything.
Also along for tonight’s wild ride are Mrs. Whitehead (also played by Thompson) and her friend Grace Carpenter (Amy Perkins), who inexplicably want to ruin the party for Mrs. Rittenhouse. Jealousy, perhaps?
This brings us to the other major plot point: the painting that is unveiled is not real, but a faux Beaugard, setting off more hysteria, running around and even the arrival of police Sgt. Hennessy (Feuerstine) to investigate. Who could be responsible?
It doesn’t matter, really, but it’s great fun to watch.
Samantha Wynn Greenstone’s Harpo (with the fright wig) gets stuck with my least favorite comedy bit: the leg-in-lap bit, usually annoying Mrs. Rittenhouse, but me too after a while. But the scenes with the culinary hardware and with the harp almost make up for it.
Spencer Rowe’s Emanuel Ravelli (Chico) is a good pianist with a bad Italian accent and a great deadpan delivery.
Bryan Banville’s Zeppo, the youngest Marx brother, doesn’t get much solo comedy to do, but as Groucho’s assistant Horatius Jamison does get a hilarious turn at taking dictation from his loopy boss. And as John Parker, he gets to sing and dance (magnificently) with love interest Mary Stewart (Amy Perkins).
Russell Garrett’s choreography is great fun, especially the timely ones like the tap duel between Arabella and Wally and a great Charleston-inflected number that also includes several other ensemble members. And talk about versatility — Garrett is also terrific as Hives and Chandler.
Jennifer Brawn Gittings has designed some gorgeous Flapper-era costumes to put under those Peter Herman wigs. Kyle Montgomery’s lighting and Dylan Nielsen’s sound are excellent as well.
Another first: The six-man orchestra is onstage rather than in the pit. It’s lovely to see music director Terry O’Donnell and his forces in front of us for a change.
There’s just one problem with this show: At a runtime of two hours 20 minutes, it’s too long, and the second act seems to drag to the point of inspiring watch-watching.
But how can you do anything but giggle at deathless Groucho-isms like this: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”
Irving Berlin was right. Hooray for Capt. Spaulding! How about Groucho for president? (Never mind that he died in 1977. A mere detail.)
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.