“Animal Crackers” at 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA
Book by George S Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
Photos by Eric Chazankin
Nice Homage to Comic Trailblazers
It’s about time. A Roaring-Twenties Broadway musical madhouse called “Animal Crackers”, featuring the Marx brothers in all their insane and subversive glory, has now – after 88 years – arrived at 6th Street playhouse to help kick off its 11th season.
Better known for their movies from the 1930s and 40s, the iconic comedy team composed of brothers Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo first brought their carefully developed and crafted personas to the Broadway stage in the 1920s, after many years performing in vaudeville. Their first hit came to the Great White Way in 1924 when “I’ll Say She Is” was released on an unsuspecting world. It was followed by “The Cocoanuts” in 1925, and finally “Animal Crackers” in 1928. It was around then that Hollywood called. The film version of “Animal Crackers” was released in 1930 and was immediately a huge hit. The genius of the Marx brothers was maintaining the essence and integrity of their characters while using these characters as a springboard from which to improvise. And improvise they did, to the hair-pulling consternation of their directors and screenwriters. Cinema and comedy were never the same.
For each of the 6th Street actors playing the four Marx brothers on stage, it’s a performance on three levels: the actors are playing the Marx brothers, who are in turn playing their personas and who are, in turn, playing their roles in the musical. It’s a powerful leap through multiple hoops, and the result is a fun and very entertaining show. The plot revolves around a ritzy house party for an intrepid explorer, a stolen painting, much singing and dancing, and general craziness.
Each cast member plays two or three roles except for Jacinta Gorringe as the clueless stalwart society hostess Mrs Rittenhouse, who has her hands (and house) full. Gorringe proves during the show that she’s a real belter of jazzy tunes, belying her staid exterior.
Jeff Cote’ as Groucho (playing Captain Spaulding) is excellent in the role and tickled many a funny bone with his ad-libs to the audience, but hit some rough spots during an opening night performance with fluffed lines and a couple of flat jokes. The wild-child innocence of Harpo as played by Erik Weiss (as The Professor) is a pleasure to watch, and Weiss keeps the energy high and the horn-honks coming. There’s an especially nice touch with Weiss and a brief black-and-white film clip of the real-life Harpo playing the harp, sweetly done. Matthew Heredia as Zeppo (as Jamison) was especially good in a scene with Groucho, the famous “Hungadunga” letter exchange, which is so funny you could fall out of your seat. David Yen as Chico (playing Ravelli) had some great moments as well, but seems a bit laconic and half a beat off at times.
Abbey Lee and Lydia Revelos own the stage whenever they appear as the scheming sisters Mrs Whitehead and Grace Carpenter. Lee in particular delivers a blazing song-and-dance performance in her roles as naughty Mrs Whitehead and winsome flapper Arabella Rittenhouse.
Direction by Craig Miller is clever and fluid, filled with sight gags and eccentric physical comedy. He hinted to us that there’s a bit of improv in there, as well. Overall, it’s a really good show, but could have been even better if pacing were a bit tighter. This will likely improve during the show’s run. Truly excellent Jazz-Age costumes by Gail Reine really make the show come to life.
“Animal Crackers” at 6th Street is a nice tribute to the Marx brothers, and should please not only those familiar with their unique form of comic anarchy and mayhem, but those who’ve never even heard of them. The Art Deco set and costumes, and some truly brilliant performances by the cast, make this a show well worth seeing.
When: Now through September 18, 2016
7:30 p.m. Thursdays
8:00 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Sundays
2:00 p.m. Saturdays: September 3, 10 & 17
Tickets $15 to $38
Where: 6th Street Playhouse, GK Hardt Theatre
52 West 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA
(707) 523-4185 ext. 1