“The Drowsy Chaperone” demonstrated why 1920s musicals are more easily recalled to the stage as objects of affectionate ridicule than as subjects of earnest revival. The shows consisted primarily of vaudevillian skits built around the performers’ specific acts, interspersed with songs barely connected to a storyline. Co-written by George S. Kaufman, “Animal Crackers” may be a better-than-usual example of its kind, but it remains a challenging show to produce in a contemporary context. Goodman Theater’s well-executed revival admirably showcases the old-fashioned entertainment style and pays tribute to the Marx Brothers, even if it never quite makes a complete case for itself.
Director Henry Wishcamper does bring to the table a fresh idea. He double-casts the supporting roles — characters who populate the high-society weekend at the mansion of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Ora Jones). The conceptual intention is to add an extra performative layer to the madcap proceedings, giving cast members beyond those in the Marx roles a chance to show off.
Stanley Wayne Mathis, for example, plays both the butler and the wealthy, art-loving entrepreneur (really a fish peddler from Czechoslovakia), and Mara Davi portrays both the clever young ingenue feeding scoops to the dashing gossip columnist (Tony Yazbeck) and the scheming neighbor seeking to ruin the party by stealing the famous painting Mrs. Rittenhouse plans to unveil.
It’s appealing in theory but ends up not adding much in practice, and even detracting a bit. Despite a talented corps, cast members almost by necessity feel suited more to one role than to the other; the full-party sequences are sparsely populated; the quick-changes never become a part of the comic fabric; and having actors play multiple filler roles doesn’t make the parts feel any less like filler.
But if the production doesn’t breathe new life into “Animal Crackers,” it does a good job of reminding us of its old life, both with the songs — all well delivered here, with a six-piece orchestra centerstage — and with the shtick. Marketed as family entertainment, this is a show that will allow folks to educate their grandkids on the great comedy acts of another era.
When Joey Slotnick, in the Groucho role of African adventurer Capt. Spaulding, gets rolling with rat-a-tat dialogue that veers off into bizarre channels of illogic and barrages of corny one-liners (about, say, how tiger tusks are hard to budge, but “in Alabama the Tuscaloosa … “), the performance impresses.
Slotnick does an excellent Groucho, focusing less on imitating look and sound and more on capturing the rhythm and the way Groucho would take in the audience. And his scenes with the terrific Jonathan Brody, who plays the Chico role, remind us of just how the Marx Brothers became such huge comedy stars; you could hear the spread of audience giggles peppered with the occasional guffaw.
Slotnick is himself a solid improviser, so it’s a shame he’s not given reign — after all, we’re in the age of well-protected copyright here — to go off-script the way Groucho would have. The brief moments he does so –referencing, for example, the Goodman’s own recent O’Neill Festival in the section that mentions “Strange Interlude” — make it clear that such in-the-moment humor is an essential part of this art form.
Molly Brennan, of Chicago troupe 500 Clowns, plays the silent Harpo figure, and she’s a highly capable clown, pulling off tough bits with skill, even if we’re not left craving more of the physical shenanigans. The cross-casting is somewhat interesting, perhaps intended to lessen the problematic, blatant, old-fashioned sexism of this piece, in which so much of the physical and verbal humor comes at the expense of the women, even involving jokes about dismemberment. (In that case, grandparents will have some more complex explaining to do.)
The most original contribution comes from choreographer John Carrafa (“Urinetown”). It’s hard to capture a sense of wit in dance, but he does it, making the group dance sequences feel current while still remaining stylishly in-period. That’s a combination that remains mostly elusive for the rest of this high-quality museum piece, which entertains but doesn’t inspire.