“Groucho, please don’t die!” a woman is said to have begged the great comedian near the end of his seventy or so years in show business. She had grabbed on to him, clutching his arm. Frank Ferrante – in character as Groucho Marx – recounts this incident along with many others in his tribute show, “An Evening with Groucho,” which played last night in Manassas at George Mason University’s Hylton Performing Arts Center. One of the best reminiscences involves Charlie Chaplin at a point relatively early in his career and still earlier in Marx’s. Both had somehow wound up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Chaplin, performing his act from the balcony, fell out of the balcony, caught himself with his cane.
Groucho Marx was not only zany one-liners, funny gaits, funny songs, and scathing put-downs. He was an excellent raconteur, stuffed with anecdotes, many of them probably true. Ferrante’s show brings this side of Groucho to life, along with the rest – the vaudeville clown, the acerbic wit, the brilliant off-the-cuff improviser, the nasty old man.
An Evening with Groucho works through conjuration, allusion, mimicry, and reproduction…we get a flickering Groucho, one that oscillates in and out by phases, now a ghost in collective and individual memories, now a flesh and blood man on stage, or offstage in the aisle, walking, talking, breathing, interacting spontaneously with the audience.
“Ladies and Gentleman, it’s the one, the only – Groucho Marx!” Back in his own persona, which he resumes here and there throughout the show, Ferrante reminds us of announcer/straight man George Fenneman’s introduction to Groucho the television host, when between 1947 and 1961 the Marx Brother starred on the radio and television quiz program You Bet Your Life, which featured a secret word and a duck dropping from the ceiling — and far, far better, Groucho’s legendary ad-libs with the contestants. Smoking a real cigar beneath a more respectable mustache than the grease-paint monstrosity of former days, Groucho was the best game show host in the history of the format.
Ad-libs with the audience are a key part of Ferrante’s act. Come to life, Groucho coaxes, berates, insults, and in general has fun with the crowd. He is witty, daring enough to get physical (in a minimally respectful way), and not above bombing. In fact, the roughest going is often the funniest.
Is Ferrante’s Groucho as consistently brilliant as the real Groucho Marx on record? Live, not quite — however, that’s understandable. It must be remembered that not only was Groucho, the “one, the only” a singular wit, very difficult to replicate, but also – his recorded shows, spontaneous as they were, were edited to retain the gems and remove the dross. No live Groucho, not even Groucho when he was alive, can have that kind of power, and we’re better off for it. The magic of live performance is an irreplaceable gift.
Ferrante first performed Groucho back in the mid-seventies, when he was a young teenager. He describes, in the show, how his discovery of Marx changed his life. He also recalls the time he got to see Groucho, eighty-six years old, perform in the flesh. That was forty years ago. For the past twenty-five, Ferrante has been playing his hero in touring prodcutions, including Arthur Marx’s Groucho: A Life in Review, reproductions of Marx Brother’s Broadway hits, and this show, written by himself. To date, he’s done the role over 2,500 times in more than 400 cities.
Ferrante was handpicked by Arthur Marx to carry on his father’s legacy. The New York Times described him as “the greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx’s material.” Morrie Ryskind, co-author of the classic Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera, has said that he is “the only actor aside from Groucho who delivered my lines as they were intended.”
A real highlight of last night’s performance was Groucho’s interaction with a young audience member, a ten year old boy. Asked if he was a Marx Brothers’ fan, the young man said he wasn’t sure yet. Later, the comedian led him onstage where, mustached, he took on Groucho’s signature gait, following the funny man around, all but anointed as his successor.
Poor Mark Rabe is a wonderful accompanist on the piano. Rabe has an impressive résumé of his own in the musical theater and cabaret scene. Here is also Groucho’s straight man and victim. Well, sometimes victim – he assists the star, and fights back as well.
As himself, Ferrante is a warm and personable performer – more so than Groucho, who was known to be rather distant.
In short, An Evening with Groucho, written by Frank Ferrante and directed by Dreya Weber, is a terrific entertainment that appeals to new fans and old fans alike. Captain Spaulding, Rufus T. Firefly, Dr. Quackenbush, and Groucho the celebrity, wise-cracking old man make their appearance. Harpo, Chico, Gummo, Zeppo, and Margaret Dumont, one of the all-time great straight men, ever in on the joke and ever out of it – make appearances in recollection and pantomime; their presence, and contributions, are missed, and felt, at the same time. But this is Groucho’s show, after all. It’s clearly a work of love, and well worth seeing. Hopefully, Ferrante will bring it through the DC area again.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
An Evening with Groucho played for one night only on Saturday, February 27, 2015 at The Hylton Performing Arts Center – 10960 George Mason Circle, in Manassas, VA. For future events at The Hylton Performance Arts Center, go to their performance calendar