"You know, I wish you were at the Red Sox game," Groucho says, after having already welcomed us as "the only people in Boston who don't like baseball." Chastened, the man takes his feet down. Groucho turns to deliver his next line, but stops and whirls back. "And you're probably a St. Louis fan to boot." He holds for laughs, turns again to say the scripted line, but whirls back once more for the final blow. "They're gonna lynch you during intermission, you know." Later on in the act he pretended to drop his cigar ash on the guy, too.
I made a deal with my stomach tonight. I've been throwing up all day. So I said "Stomach, if you can hold a single dinner down, we'll go see the show. Which I already bought my ticket for." My stomach agreed to the deal, and then I tricked it good by eating mashed potatoes. I win! Even if the T ride was touch-and-go for a while, but I made sure to stock up with antacids in the pocketses. I am glad my stomach relented, because I had such a marvelous time tonight that it completely made up for all the terrible stuff I endured today.
The Majestic Theatre is absolutely beautiful inside. And once again my good theatre karma pays off, as the house was small enough that they closed the balcony and mezzanine and re-sat those of us with the cheap seats in the orchestra. So my $15 balcony ticket sat me on the floor, three rows from the stage. Sure, I was on the side so the angle was weird and I wasn't able to see Chico's hands on the piano keys, but that was OK by me. I was up close and I hadn't expected that, I was in a beautiful theatre and I hadn't expected it to be that beautiful, and I was watching a most incredible show that I'd only begun to suspect was really well done. I was not disappointed to say the least.
Frank Ferrante has been doing this show for almost 20 years, but he's not a Groucho impersonator. Anyone can be a Groucho impersonator. You just put on the funny glasses with mustache and eyebrows attached, waggle your own eyebrows a bit, and wiggle a cigar between your figers. Congratulations, you're now Groucho Marx. You're also the hackiest hack who ever hacked. Mr. Ferrante avoids this entirely. What he does do is something quite like your Earth phenomenon called "magic." Through the course of the show he plays Groucho Marx in four stages -- the seventeen-year-old in the Three Nightingales, the middle-aged Groucho as toast of Broadway, the Groucho in his Golden Years starring in You Bet Your Life, and the elderly Groucho who sits, frail and feeble, but still able to come up with some good zingers. He effortlessly transitions between ages, most of the time doing it right onstage in a little dressing room set with greasepaint and powder. When he stands up, full-on mustache and eyebrows, he's gone from Julius Marx to Groucho and immediately starts the dance. Ovation. He's not doing an impersonation, he's playing the character. He's playing Groucho Marx playing Groucho Marx, and the attention to detail shows.
Similarly, he goes from twilight Groucho to elderly Groucho at the makeup table. He already had on the iconic turtleneck, having done a quick costume change earlier while the actor playing Chico did a great piano solo (shooting the keys and the bit with the apple!) I had guessed he'd use the piano solo to go full-on elderly backstage, but he didn't. Instead, he sings while applying white to his mustache and eyebrows. He turns his back to us to put on the beret, which with the turtleneck signified Groucho in his old age, and when he turns back around he's Old. Not only in his motions, but in his voice. He superbly echoes Groucho's speaking and singing voice in all stages of life, and the elderly Groucho's is thin and reedy, but still able to dip into that baritone when need be. The effect is nothing short of miraculous.
The Marx Brothers gags are presented here with loving care, even if some get cleverly shoehorned into the story. Example: Groucho and Chico do the musician bit from Animal Crackers where Chico charges six bucks a day for playing, twelve bucks for not, and with a quick seque ("Sold! This calls for a contract!") goes right into the Contract bit from A Night at the Opera. Since the best part of the show are the ad-libs, Groucho and Chico decide tonight to outdo each other to see who can come up with the smallest piece of paper. "Now we're just splitting atoms," Groucho remarks. "Origami!" Chico says. "Gesundheit," Groucho responds.
Both actors are experienced with this show, so adlibbing comes naturally to them. When they do the joke about "wanting to be in show business in the worst way" there are a few anticipatory titters in the back from someone who knows the punchline. So Groucho stops to approach and reproach. "Would it kill you to keep up with the jokes?" he asks. Then, "Where were you ten minutes ago?" I realize this is the closest I'll ever come to actually seeing the Marx Brothers live onstage, and I'm all the happier for it.
The actor playing Chico (whose name I'll edit back in here once I grab my program) also plays Harpo, which is appropriate, since the two looked so much alike in their youth that they were often mistaken for twins. Or each other. (Harpo wrote about being denied at least one piano-playing job because the person in charge thought he was Chico, who'd already been fired from that very gig.) He's skilled with the Chico wordplay and the piano playing, and is quite good -- but not as manic as I'd have hoped -- as Harpo. Even so, he's very funny as he chases a chorus girl, flirts with a lady in the audience, throws Gookies left and right, and absolutely killed me with the silverware scene.
Ah, yes, the Silverware scene. Probably one the funniest bits of stage comedy in the history of the world, as far as I'm concerned. It plays well on film, make no mistake, but on stage it's even more preposterous and so much funnier. For those who don't know Harpo's signature piece, it was developed and refined in I'll Say She Is, the Brothers' first Broadway show (which played for seven weeks at the very theatre I was in, so there's another great Marx Brothers connection I'm so glad to have made.) Harpo's accused of stealing from Margaret Dumont's wealthy dowager character, and Groucho leaps to his defense, declaring without a shadow of a doubt that Harpo is an honest man. They seal the deal with a handshake, and as they shake, a few pieces of silverware clatter from Harpo's left sleeve.
"Oh, that's all right," Groucho assures us, "He just sat down to breakfast and sat on some cutlery by mistake. Happens to all of us." So he pats Harpo on the back, and some more silverware falls out. Another proclamation of honesty, another handshake, and more silverware comes tumbling out. And more. And more. It pours out of Harpo's sleeve every time he's jostled, until there's a pile, a real pile, right there on the floor. The laughs just grow with each cascade of silverware, and I admit by the end of it I was nearly in tears. Perhaps you have to be there to really experience it. And then the punchline: "I can't imagine what's keeping the coffeepot," Groucho remarks and right on cue, Harpo lifts his leg up and out comes the coffeepot.
I can't even begin to say how happy I am to have witnessed this play out on stage. So happy. But then again, I am a Marx Brothers fan, albeit a young one. I only have their movies and television appearances and books to keep me happy. To see the roots of their humor play out on stage, even through people playing their characters, was such a real treat.
And the little touches I loved -- elderly Groucho tells a joke he heard from Jack Benny and then, very quietly, very gently, does the Benny fingers-on-cheek take. I applauded and the older people nearby made "oh!!" noises. Groucho's best songs are featured, even if in snippets -- a chorus of Lydia, the Tattooed Lady, a bit of Hooray for Captain Spaulding (sadly, the woman playing the "girls", including Margaret Dumont, was the weakest part of the show, and the abridged give-and-take with Dumont and Groucho wasn't as good as it could've been) and as a special treat for us vaudeville fans, a chorus of Mr. Gallagher & Mr. Shean. Ferrante even sneaks in a chorus of Peasie Weasie, something only a true Marxophile would understand, as he's at the makeup table one time.
But Groucho is not unconditionally lionized here. He's human, just like the rest of us. As a human he had many faults and this show, partly written by his son Arthur, portrays this as well. He relied so much on humor and insult that he seemed unable to get out of that and be a person when he needed to be. He alienated his wives, of which he had quite a few. One somber moment in the second act has the Girl in the show sitting down, highball glass in hand, next to middle-aged Groucho.
"Who are you?" he asks.
"I'm your wife," she replies.
"It doesn't matter, we were all the same," she says, and takes a swig from her booze. Groucho's cynical, misogynistic views towards women are brought up for audience contemplation, but always underscored with humor.
"I don't think you really believe women should be kept barefoot and pregnant," he's told at one point.
"I tried to be in that school," he replies, "but I couldn't pass the physical exams." His character is unapologetic, though regretful in old age of his inability to connect, emotionally, with those who needed him the most. He tells Chico and Harpo he loves them from the stage of Carnegie Hall, years after their passing. He discusses how, at Chico's funeral, he was unable to cry. So instead he thought of all the times he and Chico fought, of all the capers they pulled, and how he began to laugh. And he laughed until "a tear formed in my eye... and I cried. I cried for a very long time. Then I knew that everything was all right between me and Chico."
The show nearly veers off into the maudlin near the end, but Ferrante never lets it fully fall apart. He keeps things on track, and the result is good emotion and nice drama. The show finishes with a diminishing spotlight and the final phrases of "Hello, I must be going."
Tonight on the stage I watched a young kid scrape up into vaudeville, become a star, venture out from under his brothers' guidance, and survive them all. What he left behind was a comic legacy that goes beyond simple slapstick or corny puns. He and his brothers left an incomparably smart stamp on American comedy, a wild, anarchistic style that is often imitated but never duplicated, and the ability to stop the show with sheer wit, years after he's gone, through the guise of one of his biggest fans.
Frank Ferrante gets the best laugh of the evening with an adlib, appropriately enough, which worked on so many levels I'm still trying to count them all. He's already started on his Red Sox rant, off-script and out of time, and he stops, thinks it over some, and then says "I'll be back in 80 years, too."
0. Except for Gummo and Zeppo, but in this context they don't count.