Herbert Wolff Reviews Animal Crackers

Jul 10, 2013

Let’s see if I have the chronology right.  About 100 years ago, five brothers formed a vaudeville act.  Their names were Leonard, Adolph, Julius, Herbert and Milton.  Their stage names were Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Zeppo and Gummo.  The family name was Marx.  Their vaudeville schtick was on-stage outrageous behavior, off-hand wisecracks, and occasional music interludes.

With their popularity growing, the Marx Brothers made it to Broadway.  Their final Broadway appearance as a team – four of five of them – was in 1928, in a musical play entitled Animal Crackers.  That led to a popular Hollywood film released in 1930.  The musical was revived at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s.  From there, Animal Crackers went on to be performed at regional theaters throughout the country, and it has now found its way to the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

The original creators of the book and music were among the most respected of their day.  Playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind…music and lyrics by Bert Kalmer and Harry Ruby.  Unfamiliar names?  You will surely recognize popular plays such as The Man Who Came to Dinner, and songs such as Who’s Sorry Now?

In an interview with the director of this Williamstown show, Henry Wishcamper, stated this production was a new interpretation of the Broadway musical: “Rather than make it behave like a traditional book musical, I wanted to free the show of that restraint and let it just be a revue…a show as a buffet with separate dishes that you enjoy one at a time.”

And so it is: songs and dances interspersed with a nonsensical story about a stolen painting.  None of the music in the show became popular, with the possible exception of a snappy song and dance number: Three Little Words.  Hence, Animal Crackers basically serves as  vehicle for three actors to cavort as Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx – or rather, as the Groucho, Chico, and Harpo as some of us remember from seeing the movies produced in the 1930s and early 40s…and later at festivals – and, of course, now available from Netflix.

That “gap” in generational familiarity is a marketing problem for a theater production company.  At Williamstown, they have taken a creative approach: appeal to all ages, and offer free admission to kids when accompanied by adults.

And, indeed, there is much in this production for all ages to enjoy.  Three talented actors aided by wigs and physical shenanigans can be identified as Marx Brothers.  They are supported by talented, spirited singers and dancers, backed by an on-stage orchestra.  The antics are overplayed…the puns obvious…and there is nothing like a real plot.

Nonetheless, this frothy, fun revue can be enjoyed for what you see and hear.  And, you can safely bring the kids – for free, yet.

Animal Crackers plays now through July 13th at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Herbert Wolff studied under the guidance of Lee Strasberg and subsequently had roles with summer theater companies in upstate New York and on “live” television.He is former vice president of International Television Association and former Chairman of Massachusetts Advisory Council on Scientific and Technical Education. Herb continues to write, direct and appear in stage plays. For 25 years he has been the on-air reviewer of theater and opera productions for WAMC/Northeast Public Radio.

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