Hooray for Captain Spaulding!
Or maybe that should be hooray for director Henry Wishcamper and the talented cast of nine actors in George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s 1928 musical “Animal Crackers,” which opened tonight at the Goodman Theatre. The original musical starred the Marx Brothers, but the 1930 film based off of the musical is possibly more familiar to many audience members.
This production takes the audience in to the slapstick world of the 1920s, before the election of Herbert Hoover and the stock market crash. The production also has Joey Slotnick, Jonathan Brody, the magnificent Molly Brennan and Ed Kross looking exactly like the Marx Brothers who played the roles of Captain Spaulding, Emanuel Ravelli, The Professor and Horatio Jamison. But it doesn’t have the allusion that one is watching four people try to act like the Marx Brothers, at least it didn’t for me.
The production, which has a lavish set designed by Robin Vest that depicts the interior of a Long Island estate belonging to Mrs. Rittenhouse (Ora Jones). The six member orchestra sits directly in the center of the stage, but you never really notice them until the actors interact with them. In fact, many of the aspects of this production work well. The double casting of some of the roles works well with the actors making the characters unique and donning different outfits and wigs, easily fooling an audience members. The breaking of the fourth wall with some of Slotnick’s lines doesn’t come off as heavy handed, nor do anachronistic remarks about being at Petterino’s in ten minutes. In fact, “Animal Crackers” is a hilarious, roll-’em-in-the-aisle comedy that is truly funny and features such antics that the two-and-a-half hours you spend inside the Goodman’s Albert Theatre fly by.
The benefit of this show is that Kaufman and Ryskind wrote a book that is hilarious without being stupid. Not once is there the feeling of “Hurry up and get to the numbers,” nor is there the feeling of “Hurry up and get back to the dialogue” during Kalmar and Ruby’s numbers, which are usually serving a purpose for the characters to express romantic feelings.
But that’s only if you enjoy slapstick comedy. Those that do not enjoy slapstick will probably find “Animal Crackers” to be repetitive, vulgar and tedious. And even to those of us that do enjoy slapstick, the show is not without flaws. The final scene, a result of The Professor’s gassing antics, seems completely unnecessary except to untangle the mystery of who stole the missing painting that is at the heart of the plot. The unfortunate thing is that is slows down the show immensely, but the fortunate thing is that it’s right at the end of the show.
The entire company does a magnificent job in this production, but primarily Brennan, who relies solely on physical humor for the role of The Professor, Brody and Slotnick, who ensure that the show never has a dull moment with their delivery of misunderstood phrases and double entendres while Jones as the rich Mrs. Rittenhouse.
But what works so well about “Animal Crackers” is that it never feels as though you are watching the actors imitate the classic film. It just sweeps you away like you’re slipping on a banana peel.
“Animal Crackers” continues at the Goodman’s Albert Theatre until October 25. For more info, visit goodmantheatre.org