At Williamstown Theatre Festival: 'Animal Crackers,' when nearly Marx-ism isn't enough


WILLIAMSTOWN -- In taking on the 1928 George S. Kaufman & Morrie Ryskind/Bert Kalmar and Harrry Ruby musical, "Animal Crackers," director Henry Wishcamper has reimagined this Marx Brothers vehicle -- it was their last Broadway show before they headed to Hollywood where they made a film version in 1930 -- as, essentially, a series of loosely connected vaudeville sketches set against the background of a swank party in a swank Long Island mansion where a much prized painting is about to be unveiled, but not before it becomes the target of thieves.

Wishcamper sends the action spilling off the stage and into the audience at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage, up and down the aisles on the main floor and through the box seats on the second and main kevels.

But for all the energy being expended at Williamstown, it all feels more like a lot of huffing and puffing rather than antic and madcap; deliberate and effortful rather than the exuberant sharply timed rhythms of a "Laugh-In" or "Monty Python."

The chief problem is the show's Marx Brothers avatars -- Jonathan Brody's dutiful Chico-like Emmanuel Ravelli; Brad Aldous' unsettlingly leering Professor; and Joey Slotnick's Capt. Spaulding, one of Groucho's signature characters.

What's missing is the natural, easylooking chemistry among them; the audacious, brazen, carefree tearing apart of the pretensions of the idle rich. It doesn't help that Ellen Harvey's Mrs. Rittenhouse isn't much of a target.

Brody goes through Chico's motions, playing the piano, for example, ably but without the tasty flavors Chico Marx brought to the keyboard. Aldous' Harpo takes an unimpressive turn at the harp. He lacks Harpo Marx' virtuosity just as he lacks throughout Harpo's robust libidinous spirit and boyishly impish, naughty impulses. There is something faintly unsettling and unnerving in Aldous' approach.

Slotnick catches Groucho's vocal and physical mannerisms but misses, for the most part, the edge that shapes his puns, ad-libs, insults, although at Thursday's opening, Slotnick began rising to Groucho's occasion in the show's second half.

Overall, the timing is off when the Nearly-Marx Brothers are around, especially Brody's Chico and Aldous' Harpo.

It's no small irony that "Animal Crackers" is at its most stylish and breezy when it is dancing and when it is in the hands of its supporting players, particularly Renée Elise Goldsberry, whose remarkable singing voice ranges from the captivatingly crystalline in her two duets with Adam Chanler-Berat, "Why Am I So Romantic?" and "Watching the Clouds Roll By" to the haunting deeper register in her remarkable "The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me," which is alone worth the admission.

Mara Davi also raises the bar, especially in her dance numbers with Joey Sorge -- the jaunty "Three Little Words" and the second-act opener, "Long Island Low Down."

Davi and Sorge's dancing -- indeed the dancing throughout -- soars on a terrifically saucy, impudent, carefree spirit that lifts "Animal Crackers" like a hot-air balloon, until the Nearly-Marx Brothers bring everything back to earth.


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