By James Robert Shaw (The Wind up Geek) & Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre
August 2-14, 2016
J: It was a night at the opera for Ed and I. Okay, not really, but it was a night at the theatre to watch the last musical the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo) ever performed. After Animal Crackers the brothers turned their attention to Hollywood and the movies, the rest as they say is history. It is somehow fitting Animal Crackers is being performed at the Roxy, a former movie house in Quadra Village.
This musical written for the Marxes by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind with music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, was originally performed on Broadway in 1928. The play finds high society’s Mrs. Rittenhouse (Samantha Currie) hosting a party for famous returning African explorer, Captain Jeffrey Spaulding (R.J. Peters). But what is meant to be a proper social gathering soon turns into one filled with high jinks, chase scenes, and deception when a valuable painting of “After the Hunt” by Beaugard goes missing.
Henry Wishcamper pared-down Kauffman’s work so it could be performed easily off-Broadway and with a much smaller cast, but amazingly this show has a 4-piece orchestra. I hadn’t been to a show at the Roxy in a long, long time. It was good to return even if there was no longer a projection screen at the back of the building.
E: As much as I like to insert the joke of how out of sync James is with the times, going to see this musical revue was like a fun time warp back to the 1920’s — back when vaudeville shows were still popular. The enthusiasm from the cast was there, the laughs from the audiences were genuine, and I think I was one of the youngest persons in attendance when compared to the scores of older folks around us. Yeah, my buddy is a fuddy-duddy, but for me, listening to some classic style New York City blues in Grace and Mrs. Whitehead’s number, “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me” had me tripping through memory lane in what I loved from the era.
J: The preview show is called such because one may expect some rough edges as both actors and crew try to work out any problems that exist in the performance. And for this show there is some sanding that needs to be done. There was minor issues with the sound system and one of the actors of the show flubbed a line causing Peters to ad lib until the actor in question could get his footing. But that was Peters for you throughout most of the night, ad libbing what he thought was funny (and what he thought he could get away with). Two really good ad libs were with actor Kholby Wardell (Hives and multi-millionaire Roscoe W. Chandler). One of them was Spaulding stopping Chandler from saying what he thinks about at night before he goes to bed only to remind the millionaire that most of the theatre audience were from Oak Bay. The audience appeared receptive to all of Peter’s performance.
E: At least everyone was really audible. From where we were sitting, front row. The experience was not necessarily ear-splitting, but side-splittingly funny. When I gazed at my buddy, he was still as stoic as ever. I wonder if I’ll ever see him bust a gut laughing. I chuckled at the antics of the Marx Brothers in the form of Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx), Signor Emanuel Ravelli (Wes Borg as Chico Marx), The Professor (Britt Small as Harpo Marx), and Horatio Jamieson (Griffen Lea as Zeppo Marx). I was gently reminded of the film version which followed after the Broadway Musical. The second act went places that the movie did not, and I loved the meta moments of self-awareness. If there was anyone whom I thought stood out for me, it was the Wally the journalist (Sarah Murphy).
I did have one quip though. I wished The Professor actually played the Harp. That is my most favourite moment from any rendition of this story.
J: Britt Small was brilliant as The Professor. She had those eyes that darted about the place and communicated what the character was thinking. She was funny, she was warm and she could pull your heartstrings just like the person whom she was portraying. Small was a last-minute replacement to the cast, original actor Kelly Hobson went to hospital last Monday for surgery (speedy recovery Kelly). Small’s talents as a co-founder of Atomic Vaudeville worked well with funny man (and even funnier writer) Wes Borg. The biggest laugh was a scene where Ravelli asks the Professor for a “flash” (flashlight) only to set a long visual joke where the Professor pulls from her trench coat every item that sounds like “flash” (including a fish). But Small’s most memorable moment was a dream sequence with a violin playing ballerina (played by one of the 4-piece band). It was done with such pathos.
E: I have to agree. Small was a true highlight of the show. Peters was just as great too, though I was not too sure in what to make of Ravelli.
J: I was pleased with all three. What was wonderful to see was how each and every one of them gave us a unique Marx Brother and not a caricature or imitation. Borg himself appears to have taken inspiration of the voice of Ravelli from a character he did in his one-man show, Ha!, at the 2015 Victoria Fringe Festival. Sadly Griffen Lea is left out. Apart from the letter dictation scene, the character of Horatio Jamison is underutilized. It’s great to see Lea swap garters and high heels (he played Frank N’ Furter in Kaleidoscope Playhouse’s The Rocky Horror Show) for fashionable pinstriped paints and smart shoes, but here, his role as Jamieson is squandered. And the same applies to many of the female roles. Kaufman’s musical didn’t provide enough supporting roles that stood out apart from that played by Margaret Dumont (who was in the original Broadway musical). And why not, the show was built around the four Marx Brothers. But in the theatre every role is necessary, in this case roles like Mary (Jane Gaudet) are used as the love interest to John Parker (Griffen Lea) and to move things along to the next scene. I hope to see their talents displayed more in other productions and I know I’ll get my chance. For this outing not one single cast member was a disappointment. They all had something to give that made the show a fun family musical.
But of the cast I can say Samantha Currie as Rittenhouse gave the role a life different from Dumont’s film performance. Currie was prim and proper but was much more willing when it came to comedy. I only wished her drunken Queen of France role could have been extended. She stole that whole scene and utilized the classic drunken lean that comics have used for generations to almost defy gravity. Her reign as Queen reminded me so much of Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elizabeth I performance in Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s BlackAdder II. Sarah Murphy as Wally the reporter was a hot hoofer. Her song and tap performance of “Three Little Words” was my favourite musical number. Murphy has moves and it would be deserving to see her on the Broadway stage full time. Kholby Wardell is young and will grow as an actor. I enjoyed his performance. He gave Chandler the classic millionaire J. Smythe upper class twit voice we are so well acquainted with.
E: All in all, it was a fun night to see Animal Crackers as it was intended, as a musical meant for Broadway. The film has its place, but to experience the laughter live makes for a whole lot of difference. And as for that painting by Beaugard, I kept on looking to the sides of the stage waiting for Humphrey to appear!
3 out of 5 stars
Directed by Brian Richmond
Choreography by Treena Stubel
Starring: R.J. Peters, Samantha Currie, Wes Borg, Britt Small, Griffen Lea, Pascal Lamothe-Kipnes, Jane Gaudet, Sarah Murphy, and Kholby Wardell.