Monday, November 24, 2014

The one, the only(ish) …Groucho!

I may have hammered home the fact that I’ve been a Marx Brother’s fan for most of my life.

In that effort, I may have missed mentioning, that due to an interest in the comedy writing process (for some reason) and because of a fascination about the life required to stay on the circuit, I have a large collection of Vaudeville era comedians’ biographies and autobiographies. 

The combination of the above two sentences should make it obvious that a significant portion of those books are about Groucho Marx and his brothers.

While their movies are fantastic, there’s a sense from the writings that there was an extra magic to the live performances that film couldn’t capture.

This fascination drew me directly to the 2001 PBS television airing of Groucho: A Life in Revue.  I was truly impressed, both by its content, and the ability of its star to accurately portray Julius H. Marx at four different ages.

Fast forward some years to when I had become a reader of Mark Evanier’s blog. (There’s that interest in comedy writing again.)  I saw frequent mentions of Frank Ferrante’s Groucho performances on his site, but never made the connection that he was the one I’d seen on TV.

I finally figured it out (I’m slow, but I get there eventually) and also figured out he didn’t always play the California area. 

One time, I marked the date on my calendar for a local “Evening with Groucho” almost a year in advance…

Then, when the ticket ordering reminder pinged open, I learned I had read the website incorrectly and missed the show by a month.
(Sometimes, I’m slow and I don’t get there at all.)

Fortunately, I noticed last month’s upcoming appearance at the Morris Museum’s Bickford Theater in time to secure tickets for my family and me.

The theater has been completely rebuilt since the last time I visited it.  However, seeing the dinosaur skeleton above the steps on the way down to the rest rooms generated some major flashbacks to my days as a young ‘un attending my sister’s dance recitals against my will.

Attending a show I’d been trying to see for years kept them from being overly traumatic.

I’m hopping around discussing the event itself because every review I’ve read of Ferrante’s one man show boil down to, “He becomes Groucho Marx.”  I was hoping to add something more detailed or diverse to that group.

Having seen myself, I can only review it in one way:

He becomes Groucho Marx.

Until his performance is witnessed, the depth and breadth of that statement cannot be appreciated.

It isn’t only the look and mannerisms, although he has them down cold.  The show begins with him jumping out of the audience in a beret and overcoat.  Symbolically, this was perfect.  He’s one of us, a lifelong Marx Brother’s fan.  The reverence and appreciation in his voice is clear as he discusses a day from his youth when he saw an elderly Groucho perform.  As he builds up to the moment that frail old man eventually transformed into Groucho with a choice phrase, he’s donning his own greasepaint, revealing his unkempt hair and rumpled suit, and donning glasses to complete his own transformation.

Frank Ferrante is then gone, replaced by Groucho Marx who launches into his introductory songs, dances and monologues from Animal Crackers. (“Hello, I Must Be Going/ Hooray for Captain Spaulding” with leg twirling and patter accompaniment)

The appearance, voice, and recreations of famous scenes make for an accurate portrayal, but that isn’t where he truly becomes Groucho.  That comes from two other areas.

The first is when he repeatedly interrupts his own show to leap into the crowd and interact with us.  Obviously, any performer with this amount of experience under his belt is going to have many prepared canned responses for a myriad of individuals he could meet.  His ability to make them indistinguishable from the true ad libs that occur is pure Groucho.  I’m sure, based on the source of the act, he’s used to the audience skewing older, but it was impossible to tell if his reaction to finding out a busload from a retirement home was there were from genuine surprise, or carefully constructed and honed.  The trademark leering double entendre talk with the attractive young coordinator who brought them added to the realism significantly.

A note on that longevity:  Frank Ferrante has been performing as Groucho for thirty years.  “Big deal, “one could say, Groucho performed as Groucho for over eighty years.  However, Ferrante’s performance is as Groucho at the height of his career, around age forty or so.  Watching the later Marx Brother’s films it’s pretty clear Groucho himself couldn’t quite sustain that when he reached his fifties.

The only way to describe the second and main reason “He becomes Groucho,” comes from the title of the show.

The original, “Evening with Groucho,” was a 1972 performance at Carnegie Hall. He was introduced by Dick Cavett, and accompanied on the piano by Marvin Hamlisch.  It was 82 year old Groucho’s final one man show where he did some songs referenced old routines, and told stories about his life in show business. (Yes, I have the album, on vinyl.)

That’s pretty much the format of Ferrante’s “Evening With Groucho” as well.  The key difference being the energy level of this “forty” year old Groucho compared to the eighty year old original.

It’s the realism of the story telling that makes “becomes” the only right word.  For one thing, they’re told as Groucho stories, regardless of what history or otherwise says.  For example, he talks about Margaret Dumont never getting any of the jokes they did.  Groucho always claimed this, but pretty much every other source says she knew exactly what she was doing, and was simply that good.  Sometimes the best (straight) man for the job is a woman.

It is particularly talking about Dumont, and his Brothers, (as well as others) the authenticity shines.  The emotions toward them come off as absolutely and completely genuine.  That may be the truest expression of him becoming Groucho.  Whether it was the heartfelt tribute to Dumont, or the mix of pride and envy in his voice discussing how Chico’s gambler nature gave him the bravery to believe in the brothers’ act, and get them jobs through contacts at card games.  The feelings never come off as acting, but as the great comedian reminiscing.

There’s more authentic emotion at the end of the evening, when he doffs the glasses and becomes Frank Ferrante again.  He thanks Eric Ebbenga, the pianist who well deserves the applause he gets, both for his excellence at the keyboard, playing the straight man for Groucho, and occasionally recreating some of Chico's keyboard moments. Being himself gives Frank Ferrante the opportunity to share with the audience, with equally strong and heartfelt emotions, how doing this show has allowed him to share his and his audiences’ love of Groucho with those who knew the real man.  He started with stories of Groucho’s children, the late Arthur (author of Groucho a Life in Review) and Miriam Marx, and also included a tale told of Groucho’s last days by “the male Margaret Dumont” George Fenneman.

There was really only one moment between the opening and closing segments where he wasn’t quite Groucho.  It was a brief instant where he was Willy Wonka.

During every show, he pulls a child out of the crowd and after much classic Groucho word play and goofing around, faces the kid away from the audience, applies greasepaint, and presents the chosen one with a prop cigar.  Finally, there’s a quick lesson in “the walk” before sending the new convert back to his family.

The moment comes as he’s applying the greasepaint. In the middle of non-stop verbal shenanigans he talks about finding a replacement using a highly Grouchoized line similar to, “I can't go on forever, and I don't really want to try.”

Neither could the real Groucho, but his comedy will last forever.

As a rabid Marx Brothers fan, I loved it.

My daughter, who I’ve bestowed/inflicted my sense of humor on, was confused by some of it without knowing the context, but overall had a great time.

My wife, who doesn’t have the cultural background to get most of the jokes and stories, still enjoyed the songs and laughed at the audience interaction.

Thanks to Frank Ferrante, many of us who could never have experienced Groucho Marx live now have a chance, so take it if you can.

Because he becomes Groucho Marx.

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