Friday, July 14, 2017

Marx Bros. hit the stage running in “Animal Crackers” at Cygnet Theatre

“Animal Crackers” with music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby and book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskin opened on Broadway in 1928. Finally, a play now running in San Diego, Cygnet Theatre to be exact that is older than I. Well, not by too much. Let’s say by m-m-m years. It was revived in 1992 and has been produced again and again over the years.

It’s vintage Marx Brothers. And while some will be rolling their collective eyes at the loony and give-me –a break of it all, others will relish it with glee.

Spencer Row, Bryan Banville, Josh Odsess-Rubin and Samantha Wynn Greenstone
Yours truly can fence sit on this one since watching the Groucho Marx Show “You Bet Your Life” was part of my own growing up years, I kinda -sorta knew what was coming. No reruns here. I loved it then. But that was only a half hour black and white TV show and now there is no bird holding a ‘secret word’ in its bill that pops out in the middle of some ludicrous question. (Check it out)

Cygnet Theatre under the careful eye of artistic director Sean Murray and classy looking, tux clad live musicians on stage (Terry O’Donnell musical direction) with snappy choreography by Russell Garrett, the show ploughs through a silly plot line (possibly funny then) with some fine performances put in by those playing the four Marx Brothers and then some.  

There were five brothers, but only four remained in show business, Vaudeville, to be exact. That’s their era. Vaudeville gave way to musical comedies and being the survivors that they were, they also ventured into the motion picture world. In 1930 they moved ahead and their Broadway musical “Animal Crackers” was now on celluloid.

L.to R. Samantha Wynne Greenstone, Bryan Banville, Melinda Gilb, Spencer Rowe and Josh Odsess-Rubin
Fast forward to now, and it’s back again in living Technicolor with some absolutely stunning and authentic looking costumes and wigs of those days (Jennifer Braun Gittings and Peter Herman) not to mention star power by Josh Odsess-Rubin as Groucho, Samantha Wynn Greenstone as Harpo, Bryan Banville as the oft time Zeppo and Spencer Rowe as Chico.

Murray’s casting couldn’t have been more precise. Add to this complement Melinda Gilb is the wealthy Mrs. Rittenhause (where all the action or madness happens), Lauren King Thompson is Arabella her socialite daughter and Russell Garrett as Hives the butler. He is also choreographer staging some lovely dancing (“Three Little Words”)
Josh Odsess-Rubin (in background Amy Perkins and Lauren King Thompson)
On hand as well is Spaulding’s assistant, Jamison (Bryan Banville) a pair of scheming sisters (Lauren King Thompson and Amy Perkins, both excellent dancers and do an outstanding tap number), a gossip reporter and others (Chaz Feuerstein).  

The story, again tried and true is about a missing painting that was brought to the Rittenhouse estate by none other than African explorer Captain Jeffrey Spalding (Josh Odsess-Rubin) to be on exhibit at a big reception.

Skipping over a bunch of back and forth silliness, the painting is replaced by a counterfeit of a counterfeit. Get it? Between character snapshots and some fine singing and dancing and spot on adlibbing “Animal Crackers clocks in close to three hours; too long even if you’re having fun, which most on opening night seemed to be doing. 

I have to give at thumbs up to Samantha Wynn Greenstone for her physicality in playing the horn barking Harpo and never once uttering a word but making herself/himself understood. What a great performance! Permanent fixed smile or curious look, she is on target to get the most out of her Harpo character.

Samantha Wynn Greenstone
Compare her/him with the goggle-eyed thick as a five -inch paint brush mustached Odsess-Rubin’s Groucho who, at every occasion, has something to say and say it he does.

No criticisms here. Odsess-Rubin is a perfect replacement for the baggy clad Groucho, except his Safari jacket, cane and and pith helmet, Jodhpur riding pants and boots takes on the persona of an African hunter, and possibly a TV host look- a-like. (Just look at the facial expressions.) He is pretty much the life of the party.

Spencer Row works the Italian line like a pro as Chico. He’s small but solid in build in stature and carries off the comedy beautifully with both Grouch and Harpo either negotiating a deal or pulling off some silly flashlight stunt.He's the guy that's just there when you least expect it.

Bryan Banville, always a pleasure, is Zeppo when he’s not acting as one of the painters of the fake art poster delivered to Mrs. Rittenhouse’s. Of the four, he’s the most reserved if you can call a Marx Brother reserved. His love interest as painter John Parker comes off as sweet and charming. “Why am I so Romantic?”

Spencer Rowe, Russell Garrett and Samantha Wynn Greenstone
And of course hat’s of to Melinda Gilb as the ‘hostess with the mostess’, Mrs. Rittenhouse. She’s on a roll now following her fun trip as Letitia Primrose in Cygnet’s “On The 20th Century”. Check out her costumes and of course her mansion designed by Sean Fanning.

Overall some might consider “Animal Crackers” a fun filled musical comedy, fast paced farce, blast from the past; a reminder of how far we’ve come in comedy and musicals, but seeing it once is enough for yours truly. It’s fun for a while but after a while ‘the brain can only absorb as much as the behind can take’. 

And speaking of animal crackers, I’ll take mine with milk, please.  

See you at the theatre.

Groucho himself

Dates: Through Aug. 13th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: 619.337.1525
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 4040 Twigs Street, Old Town, San Diego, CA 92110
Ticket Prices: Start at $43.00
Web: cygnettheatre.org
Venue: Theatre in Old Town
Photo: Daren Scott


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