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A giddy revival for 'Animal Crackers'

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Center Stage could easily have chosen a work of great dramatic depth and weight to open its 51st season — some masterwork of the vast American theatrical canon, like, say, Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude" from 1928.

But, noooooooo. Instead, the company managed to drag up another piece from the very same year, one that dares mock that O'Neill drama, not to mention all that is sacred about society, art, business, honor and romance.

To which theater-goers all over Baltimore should respond with one word: Hooray.

As in "Hooray for Captain Spaulding," the big production number that comes early on in the Marx Brothers musical "Animal Crackers," which Center Stage has given a giddy revival. The pacing and bite of the production are bound to get even snappier as the run continues.

I suppose there are certain sophisticates who take a dim view of expending resources on such thick-with-shtick lunacy (maybe that accounted for some of the empty seats on opening night). But for the rest of us, it sure feels nice to put the brain in neutral for a couple of hours and just roll with the puns, the insults, the non sequiturs, the songs and dances, the pratfalls.

"Animal Crackers" is not necessarily the finest vehicle the Marx Brothers ever had. It certainly leaves something to be desired in the primitive 1930 film version, made in Astoria, Queens, before the irreverent brothers hit Hollywood.

B.J. Jones, who directed the Center Stage production, set out to provide a sense of the unpredictable, no-rule-unbroken stage experience audiences would have had when "Animal Crackers" first hit Broadway. He has succeeded admirably, helped by a cast that can deliver the comic goods.

This is no slavish exercise in historically authentic re-creation. The adaptation by Henry Wishcamper, originally produced in 2009 by Chicago's Goodman Theatre, involves useful pruning of the script. The musical score has been adjusted, too; some of the songs by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby have been shuffled or replaced.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of Wishcamper's revision has to do with size. Where the 1928 show would have been overflowing with dancers and choristers, this version makes do with such things as a tap dance routine for just two dancers, and with a six-piece band sitting onstage among potted palms.

More daringly, there are only nine actors involved, several of them going through quick-change business to portray multiple characters. So the show ends up being an exercise in versatility and virtuosity for everybody, not just those stepping into the roles of Groucho, Chico and Harpo.

Even with a compact cast, this "Animal Crackers" makes a big statement, starting with Neil Patel's deco feast of a set design and David Burdick's exuberant costumes.

The cast dives into the material with such gusto that the flimsiness of the plot is easily forgotten — something to do with a missing and forged painting at a posh party on Long Island given by a Mrs. Rittenhouse, but who cares? The fun is watching the mischief pile up, and hearing the jokes fly innuendo and out again at a good clip.

Bruce Randolph Nelson, the only performer in the production not making his Center Stage debut, puts his comic instincts into high gear as the Groucho character, Captain Spaulding.

His rubbery moves and flair for wielding a cigar hit the spot. I do wish he could summon a more pointed accent, though. It's not that he needs to sound exactly like Groucho, but something more New York-wise guy, less Nantucket, would be welcome.

Jonathan Brody has a hearty romp in the Chico role of Ravelli, the musician who charges more to rehearse than perform (and even more not to perform).

The real Chico was a clever piano player, and Brody does a credible job of handling that part of the assignment, down to imitating Chico's oddball way of hitting notes with an extended index finger.

Harpo presents an even bigger musical challenge — how many actors with Equity cards are polished harpists, too? — but Brad Aldous deals with it neatly enough. The actor's real talent comes through in the rambunctious moments. (The production has the benefit of an experienced physical comedy director, Paul Kalina.)

The best foil Groucho ever had was actress Margaret Dumont, who invariably played grand ladies of aristocratic pretension who had no clue what was unfolding around them. In "Animal Crackers," that's Mrs. Rittenhouse, a plum assignment Catherine Smitko tackles in vibrant fashion, though there's room for a little more attitude and vocal color.

Sean Blake shines in three roles, especially that of huffy Hives, the butler. The other multi-taskers add plenty of sparks to the proceedings; Dina DiCostanzo and John Scherer, in particular, score extra points sailing through their kinetic tap routine (Tammy Mader's choreography gives the show a nice lift).

The band, led from the piano by Laura Berquist, does sturdy work, and the musicians gamely get into the antics as needed.

Mark McCullough's lighting reveals terrific nuances along the way, notably when Spaulding deliciously breaks into an interior monologue, a la "Strange Interlude." At such moments, "Animal Crackers" becomes even more, well, crackers than ever.

For anyone put into a dither or high dudgeon by such zaniness, the show has the perfect retort (delivered via one of the production's best songs): "Keep your undershirt on."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Animal Crackers" runs through Oct. 13 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $19 to $59. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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