"Animal Crackers" revival at the Goodman

October 15, 2009 10:08:00 AM PDT
More than 70 years, after the Marx Brothers took the stage in Animal Crackers on Broadway, the classic musical is still cracking up audiences at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The Goodman launched its new fall season with tap dancing, acrobatics, tumbling, guitar- and ukulele-playing in an original take on the rarely-produced Marx Brothers classic, written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, with music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. For the Goodman's revival of this family-friendly farce, Director Henry Wishcamper has restored a wealth of material originally cut from the 1928 Library of Congress version of the script. Chicago audiences are treated to never-before experienced jokes, subtle plot twists, music, and virtuosic performances from nine of the country's leading comic actors, each of whom play up to five characters. The show has proven so popular that it's been extended through November 1.

"Every member of this nine-person company is going to be a star. It's going to be fun!" says director Wishcamper.

Chicago native Joey Slotnick leads the antics as the African explorer Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding -- the vaudevillian persona created by Groucho Marx for the 1928 stage original. Joining Slotnick in the roles originated by the other Marx Brothers are Molly Brennan as The Professor (Harpo); Jonathan Brody as Emanuel Ravelli (Chico); and Ed Kross as Horatio Jamison (Zeppo). Also featured in the ensemble cast are Ora Jones as Mrs. Rittenhouse; Jessie Mueller as Grace Carpenter; Tony Yazbeck as Wally Winston; Mara Davi as Arabella Rittenhouse; and Stanley Wayne Mathis as Hives.

"Henry Wishcamper, fresh from his first Goodman success with Horton Foote's Talking Pictures, approached me with the idea to stage Animal Crackers at the Goodman -- but with one major conceptual change," said Artistic Director Robert Falls. "The dozens of society swells, butlers, attendants and miscellaneous party guests written into the original script would be played by an ensemble of just nine actors, in order to ramp up the farcical madness and underscore the comic heart of the play. It was an irresistible idea, and I know that Henry and his energetic cast and collaborators will bring contemporary vitality to what is now considered a classic in the musical farce genre."

Wishcamper enlisted two-time Tony Award-nominated choreographer John Carrafa and Clowning Director Paul Kalina of Chicago's 500 Clown to supply the company with the tools needed for inspired comic performances. Musical Director Doug Peck leads a live orchestra of five that brings to life favorites such as "Hello, I Must Be Going/Hooray For Captain Spaulding," "Who's Been Listening to My Heart" and "Show Me A Rose."

"Our production will be dynamic and surprising, but at the same time will maintain the Marx Brothers' integrity," said Wishcamper. "Bring the kids! The spontaneity and excitement of musical theater are perfect for families, and audiences of all ages should experience a show like this. As was its original production, Animal Crackers today remains an extraordinary antidote for the times we live in."

Animal Crackers runs through November 1 in the Goodman's Albert Theatre. For tickets ($25 ? $76) call 312.443.3800 or visit www.goodmantheatre.org.

Visit the Goodman virtually: watch artist interviews at www.ExploreTheGoodman.org; catch the latest news from rehearsal on the, Goodman's Blog; peek behind-the-scenes at www.youtube.com/thegoodmantheatre; and be a Friend on Facebook.

About Animal Crackers and the Marx Brothers

Chaos ensues at the Long Island estate of Mrs. Rittenhouse when a celebrated piece of art goes missing during a party honoring the African explorer Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding. The Marx Brothers unleash a series of comic antics as the guests set out to find the burglar, amidst two sets of love interests and a variety of madcap subplots.

Written as a vehicle for the Marx Brothers and widely remembered as one of the first in their series of now-classic films, Animal Crackers began its legendary life as one of the great Broadway musical successes of the 1920s. Bookwriters George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and composers/lyricists Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar tailored Animal Crackers to showcase the brothers' unique talents: Groucho delivered his signature one-liners as Captain Spaulding, Chico utilized his Italian accent and piano skills as Emanuel Ravelli, Harpo played the silent Professor and Zeppo took on the role of the straight man, Jamison.

The stage version of Animal Crackers premiered on October 23, 1928, and ran for a nearly unprecedented 191 performances; also featured in that original cast were the great Margaret Dumont (who had already achieved some fame as the Brothers' favorite foil) and future Hollywood choreographer Hermes Pan. The production toured the country, was captured on celluloid in 1930, and completed the ascension of the Marx Bros. to worldwide fame -- but ironically, ended their stage careers. They moved to Hollywood the following year, never to return to Broadway; the stage version of Animal Crackers was consigned to the archives, considered unproduceable without its original stars. More than 50 years would pass before theater audiences would again see the play via a revival at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage. The show's brashness and charm bowled over critics and audiences, and sparked productions in Boston, Connecticut and the Lyric Theatre in London's West End.

Born in New York between 1887 and 1901 -- and spending nearly a decade in Chicago, beginning in 1910?the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo) made their stage debuts in a vaudeville singing act, but soon discovered their true talents lay in comedy. As they shifted focus of their act, they developed their now-famous onstage personas and uniquely outrageous style of comedy. After years of honing shtick in vaudeville houses across the nation, the brothers earned an enviable booking at New York's Palace Theatre. In the mid-1920s, they left vaudeville to star in three Broadway shows: I'll Say She Is (1924), The Cocoanuts (1925) and finally Animal Crackers (1928). Paramount Pictures made both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers into films in which the brothers reprised their roles.

After Animal Crackers, they left Broadway to focus exclusively on filmmaking; they starred in Horse Feathers, Monkey Business and Duck Soup with Paramount Pictures in the early 1920s. Despite the success of these films, Zeppo grew dissatisfied with his status as the least funny Marx Brother and left the act. Groucho, Chico and Harpo went on to make some of their best-known films with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, At the Circus, Go West and The Big Store. In the late 1940s, the brothers reunited for two more films, A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy. In the 1950s and '60s, the brothers went their separate ways, sometimes appearing on television: Groucho hosted the game show You Bet Your Life from 1950 to 1961; Harpo made a memorable guest appearance opposite Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy.

About the Company of Goodman Theatre's Revival

Joey Slotnick (Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding) is an ensemble member of Lookingglass Theatre Company, where his credits include Our Town co-directed by Anna D. Shapiro and Jessica Thebus, Wants & Needs, Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22 directed by Tracy Letts, Hard Times, Arabian Nights directed by Mary Zimmerman, The Master and Margarita, Up Against It and The Third Voyage. He appeared in Slotnick Katz & Lehr at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Fun and Nobody at Next Theatre Company. Slotnick's New York credits include Ethan Coen's Offices at Atlantic Theater Company and Coen's world-premiere play Almost an Evening off-Broadway at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street following a sold-out extended run at the Atlantic. His other New York credits include The Cartells at Comix and Nicky Silver's The Altruists at The Vineyard Theatre. Film credits include Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Made in Romania, Jesus Cooks Me Breakfast, I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, Hollow Man, Blast From the Past, Dinner and Driving, Twister, Since You've Been Gone, Judas Kiss and A League of Their Own. His television credits include Pushing Daisies, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Boston Legal, The Office, TNT's Pirates of Silicon Valley, CSI, Medium, Ghost Whisperer, Alias, nip/tuck, Boston Public and The Single Guy.

"Joey Slotnick will be playing Groucho playing Captain Spaulding," said Director Henry Wishcamper. "His performance won't be a carbon copy of Groucho's performance, or a museum piece where we're dusting off Groucho and putting him on stage. Joey's own unique personality and intelligence will inform the way that he plays the role?nobody's ever done it exactly the same."

Molly Brennan (The Professor) makes her Goodman debut. She has appeared in productions at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, The Second City, Lifeline Theatre, Chicago Children's Theatre, Barrel of Monkeys, The Factory Theatre and The House Theatre of Chicago. She received a Jeff Award for her portrayal of Mikako in Curse of the Crying Heart at The House Theater. Her off-Broadway credits include Lady Macbeth and the Porter in Macbeth at The Mirror Repertory Company. As a company member of 500 Clown, Brennan has performed as Kevin in 500 Clown Macbeth, 500 Clown Frankenstein, 500 Clown Christmas and 500 Clowns and the Elephant Deal at various venues in Chicago, as well as touring nationwide.

Ora Jones (Mrs. Rittenhouse) returns to the Goodman, where her credits include A Christmas Carol, The Good Person of Setzuan, Proof, The Beard of Avon and Marvin's Room. She most recently appeared in Twelfth Night at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where she also appeared in A Flea in Her Ear (After Dark Award) and The Merry Wives of Windsor. She is a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company Ensemble, where her credits include Jessie Brewster in The Violet Hour (Jeff Award nomination), Aunt Mimi in The Unmentionables and Marilyn in Carter's Way (Jeff Award nomination).

"Molly Brennan of Chicago's acclaimed 500 Clown and Chicago favorite Ora Jones will respectively play The Professor and Mrs. Rittenhouse, originally played by Margaret Dumont," said Wishcamper. "These two great comic actresses share the ability to capture the essence of the iconic performances of Harpo and Dumont while simultaneously making the roles uniquely their own."

Jonathan Brody (Emanuel Ravelli) was last seen in Chicago in Theda Bara & the Frontier Rabbi in 1992. He has appeared on Broadway in Monty Python's Spamalot and the original companies of Titanic, Me and My Girl and Sally Marr...and Her Escorts opposite Joan Rivers. Off-Broadway credits include Gimpl Tam (in Yiddish), Eating Raoul and Pirates of Penzance. Brody has toured with Spamalot, Funny Girl and My Fair Lady and appeared regionally in Hamlet, I Hate Hamlet, The Dybbuk, Irma Vep, Urinetown, Groucho: A Life in Revue and many productions of Forever Plaid.

"Jonathan Brody has, among a host of other gifts, a wonderful talent on the piano; he can play just like Chico could," said Wishcamper.

Ed Kross (John Parker/Horatio Jamison) has appeared in Stalag 17, Scapin, The Threepenny Opera, Below the Belt, A Lie of the Mind and Augusta at American Theater Company. Other Chicago credits include Transference at Mercury Theatre, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Pheasant Run Theatre, three years in I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change at the Royal George Theatre and Enter the Guardsman at Northlight Theatre. He shared one-on-one scenes with Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition and George Clooney in Ocean's 12. He has appeared in more than 60 commercials and is an 11-year member of the American Blues Theater ensemble.

Mara Davi's (Arabella Rittenhouse/Mrs. Whitehead) Broadway credits include Janet Van de Graaff in The Drowsy Chaperone and Maggie Winslow in the original revival cast of A Chorus Line. Her New York credits include Nanette in No, No Nanette and Miss Emily Benson in Of Thee I Sing, both at New York City Center Encores! Regionally, Davi originated the role of Gabrielle Gerard in Dancing in the Dark at The Old Globe Theatre. Regional credits include Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie at Sacramento Music Circus, Judy Haynes in Irving Berlin's White Christmas at The Ordway and Gabrielle Gerard in a workshop of The Band Wagon.

Stanley Wayne Mathis (Hives/Chandler) returns to the Goodman having last appeared in Randy Newman's Faust. His Broadway credits include Wonderful Town, Kiss Me Kate, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, The Lion King, Jelly's Last Jam and Oh Kay. His regional credits include Death of a Salesman at Yale Repertory Theatre, Radio Golf at The Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Of Mice and Men at Dallas Theater Center, Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Cleveland Play House, St. Louis Woman at New York City Center, Fences at Bristol Riverside Theatre and You Can't Take It With You at Pioneer Theatre Company.

Jessie Mueller (Grace Carpenter/Mary Stewart) makes her Goodman debut. Other Chicago credits include the recent regional premiere of Curtains at Drury Lane in Oakbrook; The Bowery Boys, All Shook Up and Shenandoah at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire; and Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel at Court Theatre and Long Wharf Theatre, for which she received a Jeff Award and Connecticut Critics Circle Award.

Tony Yazbeck (Wally Winston/M. Doucet) just completed his run as Tulsa in Gypsy on Broadway (Outer Critics Circle nomination). Broadway credits include Al in A Chorus Line, Never Gonna Dance, Oklahoma and Gypsy with Tyne Daly. His off-Broadway credits include Charles in Fanny Hill at The York Theatre Company and City Center Encores! productions of On the Town, Pardon My English, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Apple Tree and Gypsy. He has toured nationally with Thoroughly Modern Millie, Annie Get Your Gun and Doctor Doolittle.

Henry Wishcamper (Director), Drama League Directing Fellow, is the Artistic Director of Katharsis Theatre Company in Brooklyn, New York, where he recently directed his own play The Polish Play, A Conflation of Macbeth by William Shakespeare and Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry. His recent directing credits include Port Authority (Atlantic Theater Company), The Seafarer (Hartford TheaterWorks) and The Good Thief (Portland Stage Company); Speech and Debate (Hartford TheaterWorks); The Mystery of Irma Vep (The Old Globe); The Mound Builders (Julliard); Talking Pictures (Goodman Theatre); Flags (59E59 Theaters); Elvis People (New World Stages); Pullman Car Hiawatha (Keen Company (Drama Desk Nomination for Outstanding Revival of a Play)); So Frightful an Event I Single in the History of Man (McGinn-Cazale Theater (commissioned by Maine Humanities Council)); The Flying Doctor and The Imaginary Cuckold (The Roundtable Ensemble); and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (HERE Arts Center). He served as the assistant director on the Broadway productions of August: Osage County, Shining City directed by Robert Falls, Absurd Person Singular and Match directed by Nicholas Martin. He has served as the Artistic Director of the Maine Summer Dramatic Institute in Portland, Maine, and as the Artistic Associate of Keen Company

Why Animal Crackers?

Courtesy "Goodman Theatre OnStage"

Widely remembered as one of the first in the series of now-classic Marx Brothers films, Animal Crackers began its legendary life as one of the great Broadway musical successes of the 1920s. The stage version of Animal Crackers premiered on October 23, 1928, featuring a score by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby and a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (which gave the Marxes some of their most memorable lines and comic bits). The production's original cast also featured the great Margaret Dumont (who had already achieved some fame as the Brothers' favorite foil) and future Hollywood choreographer Hermes Pan. The production toured the country and was then captured on celluloid in 1930. The film's immense success completed the ascension of the Marx Brothers to worldwide fame, but ironically ended their stage careers; they moved to Hollywood the following year, never to return to Broadway. The stage version of Animal Crackers was consigned to the archives, considered to be unproduceable without its original stars.

More than 50 years would pass before theater audiences would again see the play, via a major revival at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The show's brashness and charm bowled over audiences and critics, and the success of the Arena production led to other productions in Boston, Connecticut and finally London, where a 1999 revival at the West End's Lyric Theatre was greeted rhapsodically. More than a year ago, director Henry Wishcamper (fresh from his success with the Goodman's production of Talking Pictures, one of the centerpieces of our Horton Foote Festival) came to me with the idea to stage Animal Crackers at the Goodman, but with one significant conceptual change: an ensemble of just nine actors would play the dozens of society swells, butlers, attendants and miscellaneous party guests in the original script, ramping up the farcical madness at the center of the play. It was an irresistible idea, and I know that Henry and his energetic young collaborators -- including musical director Doug Peck, clowning director Paul Kalina from Chicago's famed 500 Clown company and choreographer John Carrafa, whose slyly satirical dances for the Broadway production of Urinetown were among the key ingredients to that show's success -- will bring contemporary vitality to what is now considered a classic in the musical farce genre. As an added bonus, this team will be incorporating material from the 1928 script for the first time in recent productions, bringing more of the original production's signature humor to this Goodman revival.

Animal Crackers became a hit in the dawning days of the Great Depression, a time when audiences desperately needed an escape from the grim world that surrounded them. If laughter is the best medicine for curing the ills that plague us, there is no better time to revisit the collective genius of Kaufman, Ryskind and the Marx Brothers -- and no better way to laugh our troubles away.

Robert Falls

Artistic Director, Goodman Theatre

THE WINDY CITY YEARS: THE MARX BROTHERS IN CHICAGO

By Steve Scott

Courtesy "Goodman Theatre OnStage"

Few things could seem more quintessen¬tially New York than the Marx Brothers' rapid-fire comic antics; however, it was during the decade the Marx Brothers spent in Chicago that their act acquired many of its renowned characteristics. Their indefatigable mother/manager Minnie moved the brothers (then part of a musical act known as The Six Mascots) to the Windy City in 1910 on the advice of her brother, noted vaudevil¬lian Al Shean. Here the Mascots played the small-time vaudeville houses that proliferated in the city and ventured forth into the rough-and-tumble Midwestern and Southern vaudeville circuits.

To augment their income the family pur¬chased a farm in then-rural La Grange, Illinois, raising chickens and, improb¬ably, guinea pigs which they tried to sell (unsuccessfully) to scientific organizations for research. When the brothers began spending more time at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park than on the farm, the fam¬ily moved to a house on the South Side's Grand Boulevard. Minnie also established the Minnie Palmer Agency, representing a variety of marginal vaudeville acts.

In an effort to spark response from audi¬ences unimpressed by the Mascots' musical prowess, the brothers began using ad-libbed humor in their act; their uninhibited improvisation attracted attention. In 1914 in Rockford, Illinois, the Mascots were officially rechristened the Marx Brothers.

After a successful engagement of their act Home Again at Chicago's Wilson Avenue Theatre, the brothers hit the big time: a 30-week contract on the Orpheum Circuit, culminating in a book¬ing at the famed Palace Theatre in New York. By 1919, the act's success was assured, and the brothers returned to New York where their stage triumphs would soon be eclipsed by their success in a new medium: talking pictures.


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