Hooray for Centerstage production of Animal Crackers

(The cast of Animal Crackers at Centerstage. Photo by Richard Anderson)

Percy Hammond, the late theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, once wrote the following review after seeing the Marx Brothers’ Vaudeville act:

“The Marx Brothers and their various relatives ran around the stage for almost an hour, yesterday afternoon. Why, I’ll never understand.”

Several years after that line was written, the caustic critic had his answer: The Marx Brothers were on their way to becoming one of the most celebrated comedic teams in American history.

Catherine Smitko and Bruce Randolph Nelson in Animal Crackers at Centerstage. (Richard Anderson)

A decade of refining their act in Vaudeville led the brothers to Broadway and three successful shows – I’ll Say She Is, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. The last two were later made into early “talkies” by Paramount Studios and live on today in all of their grainy, black and white glory.

Reviving a Marx Brothers show, sans the immortal siblings, is a dicey undertaking, but Centerstage pulls it off in spades with its current production of Animal Crackers.

Directed by BJ Jones, Animal Crackers features a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and music and lyrics by Swing era hit makers Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Centerstage’s incarnation of Animal Crackers was adapted by Henry Wishcamper, with original orchestrations by Doug Peck.

The show is built around a party at the fictitious Rittenhouse Manor in honor of Captain Jeffrey T. Spalding – a sportsman who has lately returned from Africa. Spaulding is joined at this soiree by a scheming Italian named Ravelli and his high-strung silent side-kick, the Professor. Other guests include the matron, Mrs Rittenhouse, her daughter, Arabella; a millionaire, two flappers, a newspaper man, a young artist and a stuffy art lover. On display at the manor is a priceless painting which disappears during a black-out scene. Zaniness ensues (of course) as the party-goers navigate forged paintings, farcical humor and fledgling romance.

John Scherer and Dina DiCostanzo in Animal Crackers at Centerstage. (Richard Anderson)

Animal Crackers includes some of the Marx Brothers’ most memorable routines, including their manic movements and strange interludes. Then, too, there are the unforgettable lines:

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.”

“Africa is God’s country – and He can have it.”

“Ever since I met you, I’ve swept you off my feet.”

“There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to do before I quit: Retire.”

Though dated, even the groaners get a fresh reading:

“Then, we tried to remove the tusks; but they were embedded in so firmly, we couldn’t budge them. Of course, in Alabama the Tusk-a-loosa. But that’s entirely ir-elephant to what I was talking about.”

Animal Crackers is chock full of such silliness, but bringing classic characters and their unforgettable lines to life requires more than checkered pants, a curly wig and grease-painted eyebrows and full moustache. Director Jones has produced an incredibly lively show which effectively utilizes casting director Pat McCorkle’s entertaining ensemble.

Dina DiCostanzo and Brad Aldous in Animal Crackers at Centerstage. (Richard Anderson)

With the exception of Baltimorean Bruce Randolph Nelson, the cast of Animal Crackers are all making their Centerstage debuts.

Nelson (who practically carried last season’s Edgar Allan Poe) embodied the inimitable Groucho in the role of Captain Spaulding. Nelson’s impression was best when mixing it up with other cast members, using Groucho’s witty repartee. He delivered lines like, “You mind if I don’t smoke?” with the utmost insincerity, and, “We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed. But we’re going back again in a couple of weeks!” for all they were worth. Nelson’s Groucho wasn’t perfect (some lines came across as too flamboyant), but it was pretty darned close; close enough that at moments Nelson seemed to channel the undisputed master of the supercilious aside.

Brad Aldous’ Harpo was the mischievous Professor, replete with trademark top hat, bottomless trench coat and ever-present carriage horn. Aldous displayed a fine sense of comedic timing with the skirt-chasing prat falls of this brisk comedy and even put over the harp-playing scene well. Missing, however, from his portrayal was the child-like innocence Harpo Marx epitomized. It’s a subtle point, but an important one. Hopefully, Aldous will capture this detail as he develops his characterization.

Jonathan Brody in Animal Crackers at the Centerstage.
Jonathan Brody in Animal Crackers at Centerstage. (Richard Anderson)

One delightful surprise was the adroit piano skill of Jonathan Brody as Chico/Ravelli. Chico Marx was a gifted, engaging musician and, like Chico, Brody tickled the keys in a light-hearted fashion while glancing over his shoulder at the audience. Combined with the deadpan delivery of his broken Italian accent, Brody truly personified Chico Marx.

While the Marx Brothers are all wonderfully represented by the aforementioned actors, it was Catherine Smitko as Mrs. Rittenhouse who spot-on nailed Groucho’s long-suffering quarry, Margaret Dumont. Groucho often referred to Dumont as “the fifth Marx Brother”. Without her pained pomposity, many of the jokes would have missed their mark. Smitko endured the worst of Captain Spaulding with unflappable charm and looked uneasily at-ease while being chased across the chaise longue. Simply perfect.

Several actors in this production appeared in multiple roles. Dina DiCostanzo moved effortlessly between the debutante Arabella Rittenhouse and money-hungry Mrs. Whitehead. Erin Kommor held her own in the parts of Grace Carpenter and the ingenue Mary.

Anxious newsman Winston, and stuffy art-lover Doucet, were energetically portrayed by John Scherer. Sean Montgomery provided an able second as Zeppo and aspiring artist John Parker.

Bruce Randolph Nelson and Catherine Smitko in Animal Crackers at Centerstage. (Richard Anderson)

Playing three different parts to fatuous effect was Sean Blake – alternating as the dance captain, the butler Hives and the millionaire/fish-peddler (this is a comedy) Roscoe W. Chandler. Blake had some truly hilarious moments, not only with his over-the-top portrayals but also with a Harvey Korman-esqe moment at the hands of Bruce Nelson’s Captain Spaulding. An unscripted digression of ad-libs by Nelson had the audience howling at Blake’s expense, leaving Blake hopelessly trying to suppress his own convulsions. Bits like this were the hallmark of the Marx Brothers’ live performances. With luck, future audiences will get to witness some of these little gems as well.

This production of Animal Crackers features 13 musical numbers (three fewer than the 1928 show). The dance sequences were spirited, with Scherer and DiCostanzo kicking it up several notches with their turns in the tap-happy numbers, “Three Little Words” and “Long Island Low Down”.

Maestra Laura Bergquist kept the 6-piece orchestra humming along, as the group (on stage through-out the show) blended seamlessly into the background of the tomfoolery unfolding in front of them.

Scenic designer Neil Patel layered the single set with daring Art Deco angles, while Mark McCullough’s lighting design accented the faux grandeur. The only hitch with the set was that certain scene changes were very slow. I’m not sure if there’s a mechanical fix for this problem or if earlier cues are in order.

Finally, hats off to Paul Kalina who staged the slapstick physical comedy.

Animal Crackers is a rollicking revival; a great show which will undoubtedly exceed expectations with each succeeding performance. It’s more fun than a day at the races, or even a night at the opera.

Highly recommended? You bet your life.

Centerstage’s production of Animal Crackers runs now through October 13. Running time for the show is two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets and other information may be found by calling the box office at 410-332 -0033 or online.