Although it has been 80 years since the heyday of Groucho Marx and his team of comical brothers, there aren’t many among us who are unaware of this master comedian. Actor Frank Ferrante proves this in his one-man tribute, An Evening with Groucho, which opened a two-month run at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stackner Cabaret. The intimate space, dotted with tables that seat from two to eight, offers the perfect invitation to sit back, relax, have a drink, and get ready to belly-laugh ‘til it hurts.
As usual, the Stackner drink menu offers specialty cocktails linked to each show. Imbibers can select from cocktails named “Lydia,” “The Tattooed Lady,” “Captain Spaulding,” and “Hello, I Must be Going.” (All of these songs are included in Ferrante’s performance.) Although this reviewer can’t verify the alcoholic “punch” in each drink, one can certainly testify for the comic “punch” in this two-hour performance.
Ferrante, who has played Groucho in various roles for most of his professional career, certainly knows how to deliver Groucho’s inimitable comedy. Every movement is perfectly executed, whether it’s Groucho prancing around the stage in unfettered glee, raising his grease painted eyebrows to deliver a line, or simply telling a story with the inevitable (unsmoked) cigar chomped in his mouth.
Accompanying Groucho (and playing a variety of straight men) is the talented Gerald Sternbach, whose musical skills bring back audiences to the day when Groucho and brothers were at the top of their game, in films such as “Duck Soup,” “A Day at the Races,” “Animal Crackers” and “A Night at the Opera.”
Ferrante was eager to get the opening night audience involved in the act. Some of his funniest lines were ad-libbed when he was among the crowd. Onstage, he attempted to attract the women’s interest by pulling up one pant leg, or strolling to the edge of the stage to get a better view of a young woman in a low-cut top.
These unpredictable moments are tempered by the funny bits that made Groucho famous. Even before Groucho steps onstage, one can see a straw explorer’s hat and stethoscope hanging from a brass coat rack. Scenic designer Libby Schultz has been careful to place Groucho in an environment where he would feel comfortable: an “upscale” home with a potted plant, vintage upholstered furniture and heavy red velvet curtains. The “room’s” wall art mostly consists of framed posters from Groucho’s biggest hit films.
The straw hat, of course, is used for Groucho’s rendition of “Hooray for Captain Spaulding (the African explorer).” This is among the show’s high points, as Groucho scampers about the stage like a bored six-year-old let loose in an unsupervised room.
The performance’s exposition is kept to a minimum, as Groucho recalls the contributions made by his brothers, Chico, Harpo, Gummo, and Zeppo. (He reveals how they all got their nicknames.) He also pays homage to his finest leading lady, Margaret Dumont, who often played a wealthy socialite in the films. Groucho never tires of upending the stuffy social evenings planned by Dumont’s character.
Near the end of the show, Ferrante also mentions some of Groucho’s real-life friends, who were among the top talents in their field: playwrights such as George S. Kaufman, author E.B. White and poet T.S. Eliot. At one point, Groucho brings a 10-year-old boy onstage. He quizzes the boy much like he did with his guests on the old TV show, “You Bet Your Life.” Before letting the child return to the audience, Groucho turns the boy’s back to the audience and quickly applies some grease paint to his face. “I can’t keep doing this forever,” he says. After handing the boy a thick cigar, Groucho instructs him to “walk like Groucho” around the stage.
Although this bit received a huge wave of laughter from the audience, the stint also pointed out that Ferrante had better plan on doing his Groucho gig a long, long time. It has been said (by no less than a reviewer for The New York Times) that Ferrante is the best Groucho impersonator of them all. Milwaukee audiences have a rare opportunity to see Groucho do all his hilarious shtick, which is just as funny the second time around.