‘Animal Crackers’ at CENTERSTAGE by Amanda Gunther

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“A party. I came here for a party. And what happened? Nothing. Not even ice cream.” A calamitous catastrophe of comedy rolls its way into CENTERSTAGE to start off their 2013/2014 season with a rip-roaring bang! The madcap comedy of the Marx Brothers in the classic musical adventure Animal Crackers, Directed by BJ Jones, with Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and Music and Lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, it’s the epitome of vaudeville and zany all rolled into one thrillingly delightful evening at the theatre. Filled with song and dance, comic characters galore, and laughs that will keep you rolling in the aisles, this musical adventure is perfect for audiences of all ages, whether you remember the Marx Brothers or not. It’s comic genius at its finest.

The company of Animal Crackers.' Photo by Richard Anderson.

The company of Animal Crackers.’ Photo by Richard Anderson.

Taking us back to the glamorous times of vaudeville and the golden age of Hollywood, Scenic Designer Neil Patel crafts a tremendous and visually stunning set on which the shenanigans can unfold. With gold padded walls and a breathtaking marble floor, the atmosphere of the Rittenhouse Manor is prim, polished, and proper; the perfect venue for a party in the infamous Captain Spaulding’s honor. Placing the live-swinging orchestra and Maestro adds a flavor of period authenticity to the festivities. Patel’s genius is reflected in the simple hydraulic lift that enables for quick and humorous scene changes and lends itself to additional funny moments in the show, like when characters point out not using the space because of the giant hole in the floor.

Matching the elegance of the scenery are the outfits conceptualized by Costume Designer David Burdick. Extravagance knows no bounds in Burdick’s wardrobe for various cast members. Lovely dresses for lovely ladies, slightly more sophisticated numbers for Mrs. Rittenhouse, but tried and true caricature-style costumes for the Marx Brothers; giving them each a unique and distinguished look. Burdick’s true triumph is showcased late during Act II—right when Groucho announces things are about to get really weird—and a slew of French Enlightenment costumes parade their way onto the stage; including a gold lamé outfit that makes Groucho look like a shiny Captain Morgan. Burdick’s designs really help to further ingrain the humorous notions of the play into the overall production.

Choreographer Tammy Mader pays glowing tribute to the fleet-footed fast-steps of the golden era of the stage in her work. “Three Little Words” features a fascinating tap routine with Wally Winston kicking the number off with an intense solo bit before being joined by the lovely Arabella. Mader’s routine features spotlighted dancing up and down the marble steps and all over the stage in a fashion most befitting of the time period. Swinging kicks and swanky flare work their way into the choreography for “Long Island Low Down” and a few sensual moves get infused into “Keep Your Undershirt On,” the sassy number that kicks off the top of Act II.

Director BJ Jones, working with Musical Director Laura Bergquist, discovers the perfect balance between music and comedy in this show. While not existing as a traditional musical, the show runs like a series of comic sketches threaded together with an overarching plot and song and dance numbers interspersed in the mix. Jones harvests all the subtle nuances of the Marx Brothers’ comic styling; wordplays, corny jokes, and physical slapstick, and integrates them with a natural authenticity into the show. It’s a brilliant showcase of humor at its finest – running the gambit from highbrow to low and schticky, a fanciful style of laughing for all to enjoy.

Leading up the fine and fancy affairs is Mrs. Rittenhouse (Catherine Smitko). Preparing for the arrival of Captain Spaulding, Smitko is immediately presented as a refined figure of aristocratic society. She plays well against everyone in the cast, reacting with the appropriate level of shock and being appaled when the situation calls for it. Her finest moment is her sassy impromptu number with Hives (Sean Blake) “Keep Your Undershirt On” at the top of Act II where the pair really lives up the moment in a flashy larger than life song and dance routine.

Blake, doubling up as the prim butler of the house with his pinched English accent and then alternating as the cowboy Roscoe Chandler, gives a rousing rendition of two comic characters each distinctly different from the other. While not engaging much physically in the slapstick of the show his little gestures are what heighten the comic experience where his characters are concerned.

Grace Carpenter (Erin Kommor) and her sister Mrs. Whitehead (Dina DiCostanzo) are two-faced dippy dots. Appearing like the toast of Hollywood they quickly reveal their fiendish nature with broken New York accents and devious ways. Kommor doubles up as the dulcet Mary, paired off in sweet and sacchrine duets with John Parker (Sean Montgomery). “Watching the Clouds Roll By” is a tender love number between the pair that shows their innocent ingenue likeness.

DiCostanzo doubles as Arabella Rittenhouse, the sweet yet subtly sensual maiden of the house. Instantly smitten with Wally Winston (John Scherer), DiCostanzo is arduous and has a lovely voice for “Three Little Words.” The pair have a natural easy going chemistry that really floats their love right along with the rest of the story. Scherer, as the suave and svelt journalist, is a presence on the stage. He doubles up as the frantic, spastic Doucet, a French art curator, who is simply a barrel full of laughs.

It’s hard to say who’s king of the comedy in this deliciously delirious trio of Marx Brothers. Chico (Jonathan Brody), Harpo (Brad Aldous), and Groucho (Bruce Randolph Nelson) each bring their own special variety of comedy to the production; a terrific trio of triumphantly titillating humor that will keep the laughs coming all night.

Aldous really leans into the physicality of the performance as his character, The Professor, in true homage to Harpo, is completely silent. His facial expressions are simply wild, his bodily gestures uproarious; he’s simply a scream. Or he’ll make you scream, either way. His finest bit comes from chasing the floozy all through the house and honking his horn repeatedly.

Brody, playing the “Italian” Ravelli is skilled with deadpan and as well as comic timing and delivery; a real comic cad if ever there was one. And not only is funny but he is a skilled pianist; plinking out a brilliant rendition of several songs, his piano playing is interrupted by Aldous and the duo engage in a dynamic banter that leads to loads of laughs. A true comic champ when it comes to keeping pace with both Aldous and Nelson, Brody holds his own as the heavyweight among the trio.

Mrs. Rittenhouse (Catherine Smitko) and Captain Spaulding (Bruce Randolph Nelson). Photo by Richard Anderson.

Mrs. Rittenhouse (Catherine Smitko) and Captain Spaulding (Bruce Randolph Nelson). Photo by Richard Anderson.

But the comic crown goes to Bruce Randolph Nelson. From his wobbly extended physical gestures to his zany facial expressions, Nelson is embodying and channeling the spirit, essence, and overall existence of Groucho Marx. His performance is a great tribute of justice to the late performer; a wildly hysterical rendition of every bit of comic gold the script (and even some things not in the script) has to offer. Nelson’s interactions with the audience are to die for; really drawing the audience into the sheer shenanigans of the show, making everyone laugh all the harder. His big song number “Show Me A Rose” is riotous; falling all over the couch in duet with Rittenhouse, and his singing voice isn’t too shabby either. A well-rounded perfection of all elements comical, Nelson has a handle on this comic genius and masters it in the manner that would make Groucho proud.

Animal Crackers is the must-see comedy of the autumn season, the perfect start to the 2013/2014 season, a barrel of laughs and so much more. Don’t miss it!

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

Animal Crackers plays through October 13, 2013 at CENTERSTAGE— 700 North Calvert Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.

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