BWW Reviews: Center Stage's ANIMAL CRACKERS Is Right on the Marx

Attending the Friday, Sept. 13th performance of ANIMAL CRACKERS at Baltimore's Center Stage, my theater companion admitted some trepidation. Understandable. Attempting to resurrect the unique spirit of outrageous comedy that was Groucho Marx would be a daunting task, and if Baltimore favorite Bruce Nelson was not up to the challenge, the show might land flatter than a pratfalling vaudevillian.

Happily, there was no need to worry. This reviewer has little doubt that if Groucho was watching from on high, he would have been laughing at the antics of Mr. Nelson and his "brothers," Brad Aldous as Harpo and Jonathan Brody as Chico, in this high-speed, high-energy and hi-larious show, now at Center Stage through Oct. 13th.

Director B.J. Jones, artistic director of the Northlight Theater in Chicago, utilizes a new adaptation by Henry Wishcamper of the original book written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind for the hit 1928 Broadway musical, Animal Crackers, which featured the Marx Brothers and the eternally befuddled "society lady," Margaret Dumont.

The plot of "Animal Crackers" revolves around the unveiling of a famed work of art before a gaggle of glitterati including Mrs. Rittenhouse (Catherine Smitko in the Margaret Dumont role), a Texas tycoon Roscoe W. Chandler (Sean Blake), a mudslinging society columnist (John Scherer), a couple conniving dames (Erin Kommor and Dina DiCostanzo), a burgeoning artist (Sean Montgomery), among others.

The story is rather immaterial; it's basically all a set up for skits and bits involving a tsunami of one-liners, comic riffs and sight gags by Nelson's Groucho-as-African-explorer-Captain Spalding, Aldous' Harpo-as-The-Professor, and Jonathan Brody's Chico-as-Ravelli, who, like the real Chico, demonstrated a fine talent for piano playing (though Aldous' harp playing appeared simulated).

How can one go wrong with lines like:

"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know."

We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren't developed. But we're going back again in a couple of weeks!"

"There's one thing I've always wanted to do before I quit: Retire."

There's a great "dialogue," (if that's possible with a character who can speak only by honking a horn) between Brody and Aldous as Chico implores Harpo for a "flash" as in flashlight, and proceeds to produce from his trademark oversized tan trenchcoat a fish, a flask, a flute, a flush, and about 18 other things that begin with "fl." If you love clever puns, this is the script for you...

...though apparently, in a moment reminiscent of Saturday Night Live (usually involving Bill Hader losing it in mid-skit), actor Sean Blake might have needed a second look as he beautifully set up Nelson for some Grouchoesque improv by inadvertently confusing his character's name:

Blake: "Now see here Chandler..."

Nelson: "No, I'm Spaulding. You're Chandler. It's a wonderful script , you might want to take a look at it!"

As Blake attempted to hide his guffaws from the audience, hiding behind his 10-gallon hat, Nelson fueled the comic flames by entering the audience and gathering programs to help instruct Blake as to his character's name. It was just the sort of thing one might imagine the real Groucho would have done, and the audience (some of whom arrived in rubber nose and glasses a la Groucho) clearly very much enjoyed.

While some of the actors appeared to be better dancers than singers and vice versa, overall the production was on the mark (Marx?), particularly when Nelson, Aldous and Body were center stage in this delightful tribute to the Brothers Marx and their all-but-patented form of hilarity.

"Animal Crackers" continues its run through October 13th at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street. Tickets start at $19 and may be purchased by calling 410-332-0033 or by visiting www.centerstage.org.

Pictured: Catherine Smitko and Bruce Randolph Nelson in ANIMAL CRACKERS at Center Stage. Photo Credit: Richard Anderson.


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From This Author Daniel Collins

Daniel Collins A communications professional for 25 years, Dan Collins was a theater critic for The Baltimore Examiner daily newspaper (2006-2009), covering plays throughout the Baltimore-Columbia area (read more...)

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