note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Years ago, when the unflappable Marx Brothers starred on Broadway in George S. Kaufman and Morrie Riskind’s slapstick comedy, “Animal Crackers,” they were the cat’s meow. Their madcap silliness chased away the blues during a terrible time in our country’s history - the stock market crash and the Depression. Burlesque, quick quips, puns, chase scenes, mistaken identity, and sheer goofiness were the rage then.
For elderly folks, taking a trip down Memory Lane with the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s production of “Animal Crackers,” (based on the original Broadway Marx Brothers’ 1928 Broadway hit and 1930 movie), is a treat.
However, for younger theatergoers, many of the one-liners and corny comedy routines in this 2009 adaptation by Henry Wishcamper, fall flat, despite this fine cast’s performance. The dialog, timing, and story line seem dusty. Lines like, “You go Uruguay” to a South American traveler, or the response, “Of course, it’s big of me,” to a charge of bigamy, don’t cut it anymore.
Several in the cast are too young to identify with the vernacular of the Marx Brothers’ heyday, but they plow ahead, valiantly, to reproduce a bygone era. In fact, Ed Hoopman, who pops out of a trunk as Capt. Spaulding, or Groucho portraying Spaulding is uncanny. His rapid moves and lightning-speed quips dizzily spin around co-star Leigh Barrett as dowager Mrs. Rittenhouse, his straight man, as he incredulously recreates the funnyman-quiz show host’s silver-tongued slickness. Barrett, who is always delightful, maintains her dignity and grace amid this madcap chicanery.
Adding authenticity to “Animal Crackers” is Alycia Sacco, who portrays non-speaking, horn-tooting Harpo (the Professor) with uncanny likeness. Sacco’s deadpan facial expressions and jerky movements capture Harpo’s persona, while Nael Nacer as Chico (Emanuel Ravelli) lends understated support.
Music Director Catherine Stornetta on keyboards and her band of six add some big band sounds to oldtime favorite tunes, “Three Little Words,” “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” (which later became Groucho’s theme song on his TV quiz show, “You Bet Your Life,”) “Keep Your Undershirt On,” and others.
The story is goofy and doesn’t hang together well, especially, during a string of romantic songs inexplicably plunked in the middle of the first act. A dowager throws a fancy party to welcome a renowned African explorer to her house and to present him with a famous painting. However, her jealous neighbors steal the painting, replacing it with a fake. So does an aspiring artist, who wants to show off his talent, indicating how closely he can copy the real painting. After a questionable investigation and the confusion dies down, the painting is successfully recovered.
Ever-charming star Aimee Doherty switches costumes and wigs in split-second timing in dual roles, as irresponsible Arabella Rittenhouse and jealous Mrs. Whitehead, while Jordan Ahnquist seamlessly changes from her artist boyfriend, Wally Winston, to M. Doucet, and Sgt. Hennessey.
Rachel Bertone’s nostalgic, fun choreography and Charles Schoonmaker’s handsome flapper-style costumes enrich the production’s vaudevilian atmosphere.
Rounding out the cast are Merissa Czyz, triple-cast as Grace Carpenter, Mary Stewart and Girl B; Grant McDermott as John Parker and Horatius Jamison (Zeppo); and Calvin Braxton as butler Hives and wealthy Roscoe W. Chandler.
BOX INFO: Two-act, 2-1/2 hour musical comedy, appearing through June 4 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston. Directed by Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos. Showtimes are Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; Wednesday, June 1, at 2,7:30 p.m.; other Wednesdays, 7:30 only; Thursdays also at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, $25-$52; seniors, $5 off; student rush, $10; group rates. Call 617-585-5678 or visit lyricstage.com.