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Cygnet’s “Animal Crackers” a Laugh a Minute

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TR Robertson

TR Robertson …..It’s zany, mad capped, hilarious and pure Marx Brothers. The opening play of Cygnet’s 15th season is a musical comedy hit from the 1920’s, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s “Animal Crackers”. Taken from a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, “Animal Crackers” was written to show off the talents of the popular vaudevillian comedy group, the Marx Brothers. Even if you are not familiar with the Marx Brothers, you will love this musical comedy.

“Animal Crackers” opened on Broadway on October 23, 1928 at the 44th St. Theatre and ran for 191 performances. This was the 2nd Marx Brothers show on Broadway, the first was “I’ll Say She Is”. “Animal Crackers” would be followed by “Cocoanuts”, which would run for 3 years at the Lyric Theatre. Interestingly, the Marx Brothers would perform “Animal Crackers” on stage during the evening while they were filming “Cocoanuts” during the day. Vaudeville was coming to an end as talking movies were becoming popular.

Entering the Cygnet Theatre, the audience steps back in time to the 1920’s with the multi-level set design and the orchestra seated on stage as part of the set. Minimal props would appear as needed or be rolled on stage by cast members. Cygnet’s award winning Artistic Director, Sean Murray, has put together a stellar cast that had the audience applauding and laughing throughout the performance. Musical director/pianist Terry O’Donnell led the 5 piece orchestra as they became part of the set design. Other production team members included Scenic Designer Sean Fanning, Choreographer Russell Garrett, Costume Designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings and Wig and Make-up Designer Peter Herman. As the actors and actresses entered and exited the set you felt as though you had entered the set of a 1920’s musical or movie.

  • 1930's movie poster

Photos by Daren Scott

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this musical is the fact that 10 cast members would play over 20 various characters during the 2 ½ hour performance. Time flew as did the action on the set, full of quick one liners, puns, physical comedy, a bit of improv, audience participation, chase scenes, slapstick, unique stage entrances, clever dance routines including an audience pleasing tap routine, quick costume changes, and memorable Marx Brother’s antics.

They key to all of this though, is the cast. The story is a simple one. Socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse is having a party to introduce Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho Marx), newly returned from an exploration of Africa, and presenting a newly acquired painting, a Beaugard (fictional artist). Jealous socialites Mrs. Whitehead and Grace Carpenter want to change the painting for a copy to ridicule Mrs. Rittenhouse. Swirling around this are various relationships that seem to be developing. Blend in a pompous butler, Hives, and a Czechoslovakian fish-monger, Roscoe W. Chandler, now pretending to be a member of high society, throw in the zany Emanuel Raveli (Chico Marx), played by Spencer Rowe, Spaulding’s travel secretary Horatius Jamison (Zeppo Marx), played by Bryan Banville, and the Professor (Harpo Marx), played by Samantha Wynn Greenstone, and you have the mix for comedy hilarity. The painting is stolen, suspects are many, copies are many, and solving the crime doesn’t seem to matter.

Groucho is played by Cygnet veteran Josh Odsess-Rubin. He does an amazing job at the fast paced dialog Groucho was known for. Back and forth barbs fly and quick on-liners are so many it is hard to keep pace. Well known Groucho lines such as “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know” and “We took some pictures of the native girls, but they weren’t developed. But we’re going back in a couple of weeks” fly out in simple conversation. At one point, as Capt. Spaulding sits with Roscoe Chandler, played by Russell Garrett making his Cygnet debut,  it appears as though lines have been forgotten, but Spaulding (Groucho) turns to the audience, grabs a program and we are off and flying again as smoothly as if this is all part of the conversation. In another scene, Capt. Spaulding dictates a letter to his lawyers in made-up legal language only to have assistant Horatius Jamison (Zeppo) tell him he didn’t write anything down as the information wasn’t important enough to keep. Spaulding also later uses a Eugene O’Neill play, “Strange Interludes”, and a technique of asides to convey his thoughts.

Ukelele playing Ravelli (Chico), played by Spencer Rowe also making his Cygnet debut, and the Professor (Harpo), played by Cygnet veteran Samantha Wynn Greenstone, have a hilarious play on words scene as Ravelli wants a flash (flashlight) only to find the Professor is having a bit of trouble understanding Ravelli’s accent and pulls everything out of his trenchcoat but the flash. Out comes a huge flask, a flute, a fish and more. Earlier in the musical, when we first meet The Professor, we are treated to a 5 minute, it seems, bit of silverware and other items dropping out of the trench coat sleeve of The Professor.

An audience favorite, Cygnet veteran Melinda Gilb, plays Mrs. Rittenhouse, and brings a bit of refined dignity to her character, playing the socialite who doesn’t seem to know what is going on around her. She joins in a number of dance routines and sings “Sing Me a Rose” with Spaudling. She also sings “Keep Your Undershirt On” with butler Hives to open Act II. Chaz Feuerstine, as reporter Wally Winston, looking for a big break in the newspaper business, and Lauren King Thompson, perform a well-designed tap dance routine that received a huge ovation from the audience.

The ending of the musical is even more unusual as the cast falls asleep from a spray The Professor uses and we have a dream sequence where the cast members are now members of an English court from the 1600 or 1700’s. All of this is used to solve the mystery of who took the painting, what the copy means to others, and by the way there is a second copy as well. As you might expect, everything works out for everyone in the end, except for the two kniving socialites that began this whole mess.

It’s fun, it’s bizarre, it’s a Marx Brothers mish-mash, guaranteed to make you laugh. “Animal Crackers” will play until August 13th. You can purchase tickets at www.cygnettheatre.com or call 619-337-1525. In a special two night performance, Cygnet will present a staged-reading concert, benefiting Cygnet’s Artist Advocate Program, of the Monty Python “Spamalot”, featuring Sean Murray as King Arthur. The next play be Cygnet’s 15th Season will be The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” directed by Rob Lutfy, beginning August 30th.




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