By Edith McCauley
The top show now running in Chicago, Animal Crackers, is playing to sold-out houses. An adaptation of the original classic staged in 1928 written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind with music and lyrics by Bert Kalmer and Harry Ruby, it brings to the audience the hilarity that we so associate with the Marx Brothers. We are taken back to the days of vaudeville and the fast-moving skits and musical numbers that entertained generations.
Following the performance last week, members of the cast shared with the audience the many challenges they faced from casting to the sheer physicality required. The 1928 production had a cast of 60, and the innovative director, Henry Wishcamper, and his staff recreated every moment with only nine amazing actors playing multiple roles. Their ability to sing, dance, clown, tumble (Ora Jones as Mrs. Rittenhouse literally rolled down a flight of stairs), and deliver the wittiest of lines gives the entire show a completely unique aspect not seen on stage in ages.
The four Marx brothers are cast perfectly. Joey Slotnick is Groucho, complete with glasses, mustache and the ever-present cigar. Clown Molly Brennan is the curly-haired, harp-playing, silent Harpo, whose body language is her distinguishing characteristic. Jonathan Brody is Chico, and his piano numbers are a highlight of the evening, and finally, Ed Kross as Zeppo quietly underplays his role. The talented Ora Jones as the regal Mrs. Rittenhouse constantly regales us with her humorous lines, but it is her singing and dancing that reveals the true extent of her genius.
It is the music and dancing that truly makes Animal Crackers a smash hit. The dynamic choreography of John Carrafa is so like that of Hermes Pan, whose work for Fred Astaire and his many partners gave every musical for years the dances we so well remember. As Arabella Rittenhouse, Mara Davi, and Tony Yazbeck as her lover, Wally Winston, sang and danced
Three Little Words,
the memorable first-act number. The songs of the ’20s recall every lyric we ever heard. Stanley Wayne Mathis is Roscoe W. Chandler, the multi-millionaire straight out of a 1920’s cartoon. His interchange with Slotnick gave us a moment of contemporary humor. The audience loved it.
Animal Crackers has been extended because of the great demand for tickets. For those dates, call (312) 443-3800. When asked during the talk-back if the show would go to Broadway, the associate director asked,
Do you have a check?
Personally, Animal Crackers tops any current production in New York. It’s my favorite for the year.
From the October 21-27, 2009 issue