“Animal Crackers” with Renee Elise Goldsberry at Williamstown Theatre Festival
by Nancy Salz, July, 2013
Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind
Music and Lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Adapted and Directed by Henry Wishcamper
Choreography by John Carrafa
Physical Comedy Directed by Paul Kalina
With Brad Aldous, Jonathan Brody, Adam Chanler-Berat, Mara Davi, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Ellen Harvey, Jacob Ming-Trent, Joey Slotnick, Joey Sorge
Main Stage, until July 13, 2013
When a musical is given a revival it is usually because of the music, the dancing, the subject of the story or a singular character at which the most talented actor of the day can take a turn. Sometimes all four (think The King and I or Gypsy). In the case of Animal Crackers the 1928 musical, it is the three S’s: shtick, slapstick and silliness.
This show is being given a stylish and energetic revival at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The production and many of its stars have appeared at other major theatres across the country, most notably the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where this version of the show originated. But the key question is why. With only two songs that survived outside the show (“Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” which became the theme song for Groucho Marx’s television program “You Bet Your Life”; and “Three Little Words,” which became the title of a 1950s movie), some nice dancing that could be seen in almost any show, and a plot that’s about as relevant to the shenanigans as a plot is to the circus, the reason has to be entertainment. On this level, the show succeeds — for some. This burlesque type of entertainment is an acquired taste.
The show was premiered in 1928 as a Marx Brothers musical. They, and the actors imitating them, are this Animal Cracker’s centerpieces. Puns and vulgarity reign. The original production also had 65 other actors. The WTF production has all of its 9 actors doubling as separate characters and taking part in the chorus, when it’s called for.
Animal Crackers takes place during a house party at a Long Island mansion in 1930. The main setting is an Art Deco ballroom with the six-piece orchestra plus a conductor on stage. The guests arrive. A painting is stolen, copied and found. Two couples meet and fall in love. There is a butler, a grande dame, and the Marx Brothers. That’s about it.
The entire cast is energetic, enthusiastic and talented. They include Jacob Ming-Trent as the butler, Hives (Jeeves, get it?!) and Roscoe W. Chandler; Ellen Harvey as Mrs. Rittenhouse, the grande dame; Joey Sorge mainly as Wally Winston, a newspaper reporter who sings and dances; and Adam Chanler-Berat as the painter. Both Mara Davi and Renée Elise Goldsberry are excellent in dual roles as ingénues and vamping twenties sophisticates requiring quick costume and wig changes. Ms. Goldsberry is particularly compelling. Her singing is softly operatic and beautiful. The three stars of the show are the Marx Brothers. Brad Aldous plays the non-speaking Harpo Marx (The Professor in the show). He grins and mimes and is altogether winning. Jonathan Brody is Chico (Ravelli) whose piano playing is funny and brilliant. Think of a hyped-up Victor Borge in costume. Joey Slotnick, who played the role in this version of Animal Crackers in Chicago, is a perfect Groucho, quipping, tapping his cigar, raising his eyebrows, ad-libbing to the audience and walking around with bent knees. Clowns all.
In a post-play discussion the actors explained that the show’s dialogue must be spoken quickly. That’s how things were done back in the twenties. Unfortunately, this fast talking caused the audience to miss many of the lines and therefore the jokes. Fast talking needs perfect enunciation, which did not always happen.
This production of Animal Crackers, with book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, was adapted and directed by Henry Wishcamper. Paul Kalina directed the excellent physical comedy. The less-than-original choreography was by John Carrafa. The scenery – extravagantly lavish in golds and turquoises – was designed by Robin Vest. Jenni Mannis designed the winning costumes.
We were also told in the after-show discussion that the show’s script has natural rhythms that take some getting used to. Advice for future audiences: Surrender – surrender to the rhythm, the silliness and you will have a good time. But overall, the show reminds one of the old joke about the pilot speaking to his passengers. “I have good news and bad news,” the pilot says. “The bad news is we’re lost. The good news is we’re making good time.”