October 9, 2009

Goodman revamps vaudeville with kooky caper

Get transported back to the time of speakeasies and dust bowls with the Goodman's hilarious remake of the Marx Brothers' classic Animal Crackers. Although the original production opened nearly 80 years ago, the jokes are still funny and the material is still fresh. With a multi-talented cast and a quick-witted script, Goodman's Animal Crackers is upbeat and poignant, perfect for the still-dismal economic times. The performance is vaudville at its best, incorporating slapstick comedy, pantomime, dance, song, and acting. Filled with triple threats and local comedy legends, the production is first-rate and enormously entertaining.

The musical has a patently ridiculous story which the cast embraces with enthusiasm. In the middle of a fancy party, a valuable painting goes missing, and chaos ensues. The subsequent comedy of errors follows the search for the thief and the guests' attempts to curry the favor of their distinguished, yet very rude, guest of honor, Captain Spaulding. Throughout the party various romantic escapades and business ventures provide the guests with excellent opportunities to make complete fools of themselves.

Although almost everyone in the cast is great, there were a few in particular that made the experience truly special. Mara Davi and Jessie Mueller sang beautifully in the roles of Arabella and Mary Stewart, respectively, adding a solemn loveliness to an otherwise silly show. Jonathan Brody plays the sarcastic Italian, Emanuel Ravelli, and is a thoroughly likeable, sardonic character whose caustic attitude is comedic gold. The same can be said of Molly Brennan, who mimes the role of Harpo Marx-as-the-Professor, expressing more with her facial expressions and physicality than most actors can with words.

However, the choreographer is the true star of the production. Two-time Tony nominee John Carrafa has created high-spirited, perfectly synchronized dance numbers which infuse the production with energy. Unlike many choreographers, Carrafa displays both technical skill and a flair for the dramatic, which is necessary to sustain humor through the dance numbers. Music Director Doug Peck’s charming, zany accompaniment fully animates the ensemble numbers so that some of the most stunning, most spectacular moments occur during choral dance performances.

There were, however, some slight disappointments. Although he was excellent as the narrator in the Lookingglass's Our Town, Joey Slotnick is not quite as strong in the role of Groucho's Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding. He is indeed funny, but at times his character seems too bitter. His delivery is not always clear and his comedic timing is too off for us to appreciate how clever his lines really are. But when he does manage to engage the audience, he is captivating. At his best, and at his most natural, Slotnick can be a great comedian, but he isn't nearly as consistent as the actors playing the other Marx Brothers. Some of Slotnick's problems may arise from Ora Jones in the role of Mrs. Rittenhouse, whose unnatural acting sometimes kills the comedy in the scenes she share with her co-performers.

Nevertheless, the show is a full-blown spectacle. The flashy song and dance numbers combined with Jenny Mannis’ wild and wacky costumes makes Animal Crackers thrilling and thoroughly campy. Brody’s performance of “Everyone Says I Love You” is quite funny, and he expresses just the right amount of irreverence and mischieviousness. Ed Kross and Mueller sing a soulful rendition of the love song “Why am I So Romantic?” that will steal your heart. And Tony Yazbeck and Davi will tap-dance your socks off in the dance number “Three Little Words.”

It's important to mention that Henry Wishcamper's script update attempts to remain as faithful as possible to the Marx Brothers' original. Despite some modifications to the more time-sensitive jokes, this revision has not lost the old-school charm of our grandparents' era. Filled with antiquated notions of love and humor, this production has a kind of tenderness that is rare in modern comedy, and makes you understand the incredible tenacity of cheerfulness through the Great Depression.