Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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How He Got In My Pajamas, I'll Never Know

October 13, 2009

Joey Slotnick as Groucho in Animal Crackers
Photo: Eric Y. Exit/Goodman Theater 2009

Before leaving Chicago this weekend, I was fortunate to catch one of those shows you don’t expect to be as entertaining as it is. The show in question is a revival of George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s musical star vehicle for the Marx Brothers, Animal Crackers, now on stage at the Goodman Theater. It’s probably about the last musical you would think would warrant a revival, but strangely enough has had several around the country over the last 25 years. But it’s the presumed rarity, combined with how funny and simply joyful the production actually is that makes it so winning. The original show, from 1928, was the third production featuring the Marx Brothers on Broadway and it came at the end of the Vaudeville era. Like other musicals at the time, it contained only the thinnest wisp of a plot as an excuse to feature not only the comic talents of the Marx Brothers, but a variety of other singers and dancers in various combinations. Despite an overarching setting, it's more of a genteel variety show than anything else.

Animal Crackers was also nearly completely dependent on the talents of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo again leading one to assume there would be no reason to revive the original without its stars. But the Marx Brothers, of course, were characters in their own right for the three men who played these parts in numerous movies and plays of the period. And in the intervening century it has become a little easier to see these three characters as what they were, fictions used for comic purposes. To this extent its easy to watch Animal Crackers and the performances of Jonathan Brody as Chico, Molly Brennan as Harpo, and Joey Slotnick as Groucho and see them more than simply clever imitations. The casting of Brennan as the skirt chasing Harpo is an especially funny modern twist on the proceedings. Of course, may of the topical one-liners are a bit beyond the grasp of a contemporary audience, including myself, but Slotnick makes the most of it with seemingly spontaneous asides in character riffing on the show itself as well as Eugene O'Neil and the Goodman Theater. There's no cynical anachronism and the most political humor you're going to get is about Calvin Coolidge.

But that is part of the charm. Animal Crackers may be old-fashioned, but it's hugely successful in that its able to revive the most important qualities that made the original popular, a sense of glee and playfulness that the audience experiences first hand. The show has been extended through November 1, and if you're in Chicago, I'd highly recommend it.


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