Dan Stevens cuts a rug as Emanuel Ravelli, the role originally played by Chico Marx, in “Animal Crackers” staged by Baldwinsville Theatre Guild through May 12, at the First Presbyterian Education Center, 64 Oswego St., Baldwinsville. Stevens also directed the show. (Renée Rorer, 2018)
After the winter we’ve all endured, isn’t it about time for a good laugh?
Audiences are whooping it up at the Presbyterian Church Education Center as the Baldwinsville Theatre Guild delivers silliness in spades with a an aptly anarchic “Animal Crackers,” the 1928 madcap musical starring the Marx Brothers.
The action — slapstick shtick, simple, decorative dancing, plenty of punning — takes place at the Long Island Home of Mrs. Rittenhouse who’s throwing a party for Capt. Spaulding, recently returned from the jungles of Africa. Spaulding was the role played by Groucho, here featuring a uniquely qualified talent, one Doug Rougeux, a graduate of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Clown College.
Flashing a perpetually sly grin, brandishing a cigar and peering through perfectly circular eyeglasses in front of a face with blacked up mustache and eyebrows under a pith helmet, Rougeux’s Spaulding is the very picture of preposterousness. Groucho would be proud as this Spaulding proposes a seven-cent nickel, courts two women at once and duels verbally – and hilariously – with all concerned.
Meanwhile, O’Dea – an award-winning local leading lady – has little to work with as the haughty Mrs. Rittenhouse, the role so dryly played by the dour Margaret Dumont. Smaller than the stout Dumont and beaming blondely, O’Dea plays the straightwoman straight. Selflessly, she never distracts from the laughs that follow her character’s stodgy set-ups.
O’Dea literally takes it on the chin in Act 2’s “Show Me a Rose,” in which Spaulding pushes her face away during a faux tango.
Two of the roles played by Groucho’s brothers are taken here by newcomer Andrew Skinner in Zeppo’s role of Jamison, the captain’s secretary, and veteran thespian Dan Stevens in Chico’s role as musician Emanuel Ravelli. Stevens also directed this unconventional and sometimes unwieldy show, but he kept its pace brisk, its movement eye-catching and – most importantly – its dialogue snappy.
As Ravelli, Stevens steals scene after scene including an hysterical bridge game against two society women.
In an especially daring directorial choice, Stevens cast a woman – Jennifer Staples – as the Professor, the part originally played by the curly-haired clown, Harpo Marx. It was a gamble that paid off in dividends.
Staples is a sheer joy, fully embracing Harpo’s silent sense of humor. Not only does Staples honk the squeeze horn with impunity, she also strums two refreshingly peaceful harp interludes – on in each act – as well as schlepping fish, flasks and flashlights in the Professor’s baggy trench coat. Her expressive face – sometimes wacky, sometimes wily, always witty — puts the exclamation on her performance. Brava!
The show’s de rigueur romance depicts the trysting of Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter, Arabella, with an ambitious young painter, John Parker. As Arabella, actress Tara O’Connor performs the best vocal performance of the show on Act 2’s “Why Am I So Romantic?” It’s a duet with Parker played by the dashing Derek Powell, whose baritone cooly complements O’Connor’s soprano. The couple’s first-act tune, “Three Little Words,” also hit the mark.
While the entire cast of 17 occasionally sweep across the stage in either total confusion or gas-induced stupors, individual performances stand out. Heather MacNeil’s conniving Mrs. Whitehead is a slinky, sneaky vamp. The vivacious villainess shines in the Act 2 opener, “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me,” accompanied by Jack Carr as Hives, the butler and Willow Eckel as another flapper-gone-bad.
Carr makes the most of his snide servant’s turn with a telling roll of the eyes. He leads the cast in the show’s theme song, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” and he even blows a kazoo!
Lanny Freshman bravely takes a loud pratfall as the wealthy Roscoe Chandler in Act 1 before being exposed as a Czechoslovakian fish peddler. Yes, the plot is largely nonsense – something about a stolen painting, if you must know. Which brings us to Susan Johnson who plays an offbeat patroness of the arts with a sweet Parisian accent.
While the onstage cast carries the comedy, the musicians and crew provide solid support, especially music director Ian MacNeil, who hammers rim shots to punctuate the punchlines while pianist Patti Walz and bassist Jeremy Walts play the notes.
The set designed by William Edward White is framed by four six-feet-tall black-and-white
charcoal-style portraits of each of the four Marxes. Costumes arranged by Jack Carr are unusually faithful to the 1920s, and the women are especially well-adorned.
If you’re ready to warm up to some admittedly absurd humor, “Animal Crackers” is a must for your menu.
“Animal Crackers,” written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind with music by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, continues at the First Presbyterian Education Center, 64 Oswego St., at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 11 and 12. Tickets cost $25, and $21 for students and seniors; baldwinsvilletheatreguild.org; (315) 877-8465.