Frank Ferrante has been channeling Groucho Marx since he was nine years old. That’s when Ferrante saw his first Marx Brothers film, A Day at the Races, and was captivated by all the brothers in the cast, Groucho in particular. Years later, when Ferrante was a drama student at USC, he created a play about Groucho as his senior project. Displaying chutzpah worthy of Groucho, he invited Groucho’s son Arthur to the show. Arthur was impressed and a few years later asked Ferrante to star in a play he was writing about his father.
That play, Groucho: A Life in Review, was a surprise hit in New York when it opened in 1985 and went on to equal success in London, ensuring Ferrante’s path to fame as the keeper of Groucho’s unique blend of wit, physical comedy and improv. Some years later, Ferrante evolved Arthur Marx’s play into his own creation.
It’s that production, An Evening with Groucho, that Ferrante has presented in more than 400 cities in the U.S. and Canada (although never before in Seattle). Unlike Arthur Marx, who traced the full arc of Groucho’s career in his play, Ferrante has created a revue that he describes as “what Groucho would have done in 1934 if he had worked without his brothers.” The production is tightly structured to include material from Groucho’s films and vaudeville shows plus 'pockets' to allow for improv bits.
Ferrante is well known to Seattle audiences as the wisecracking emcee of several Teatro ZinZanni shows. Like Groucho, he is a master of the spontaneous one-liner, teasing individual audience members with a mixture of clever barbs and good humor. Anyone attending a Ferrante show can be singled out for Ferrante’s irreverent jabs and in ACT’s intimate Bullitt Cabaret it’s almost impossible to avoid his gaze.
At Thursday night’s opening performance, Ferrante took particular aim at the theater critics in the audience (except this one, who was seated a little too far back). When he observed that a writer for one local paper wasn’t taking notes, he moaned in frustration, “Oh great, you’re illiterate.” To another, who said she uses the pen name Emma for her reviews, he retorted, “I guess you’re so ashamed of your real name you have to use another one.” Later, in a joke that only a few caught, he referred to that critic as Madame Bovary, the main character in Flaubert’s masterpiece whose first name is also Emma.
All of Ferrante’s digs are in the same spirit of great fun that characterized Groucho’s performances. Ferrante’s script contains about 25 percent improv; the rest is a masterful interweaving of narration, musical numbers, and interplay with his music director and straight man Jim Furston. Furston is an accomplished musician and opens the show with a hilarious send up of a concert player settling down at the piano. He flings his jacket tails into the air, sits down at the piano and flexes his fingers. Just as he’s about to play, loud applause from an unseen patron (probably Ferrante) explodes from a corner of the theater, with the audience joining in. Furston gets up, bows and goes through the whole routine again; again the patron applauds, again the audience joins in and again Furston gets ready to play.
It’s a mark of Ferrante’s comic genius that he knows just how long to let the schtick go on. One more time and it would have become tedious, but Furston soon begins a dazzling collage of popular and classical tidbits; as he finishes, Ferrante bounds onto the stage and the real show begins.
Ferrante wears no makeup to start the show, but as he sits down and begins drawing a greasepaint mustache (which Groucho also used), puts on eyebrows and glasses, and teases his hair into Groucho’s trademark tufts, he metamorphizes into Groucho. Ferrante doesn’t like to describe his impression of Groucho as an impersonation. The fact is that he is Groucho. He has Groucho’s voice down pat and engages in the same physical antics that made Groucho so memorable — the famous 'duck walk,' bounding on and over the furniture and using his cigar as an extra appendage.
Along the way to the touching final song “Hello, I Must Be Going,” Ferrante weaves Groucho's story: how the five Marx brothers got their stage names, their acrimonious relationship with Louis B. Mayer, Groucho’s affection for the elegant but clueless Margaret Dumont (the straight lady in Marx Brothers films), and Groucho’s friendship with Charlie Chaplin.
The show includes some of Groucho’s most-loved songs, like “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” and “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” and favorite jokes — “I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know,” “You talk so much you must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle,” In the end though, An Evening with Groucho is far more than the sum of its hilarious parts. It’s a chance to appreciate Groucho Marx’s timeless genius and the contemporary actor who is his heir in spirit, intellect, and irreverence.
If you go: An Evening with Groucho, Bullitt Cabaret at ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, through May 20. Tickets from $15 can be purchased at both theaters: Fifth Avenue Theatre, 206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org, and ACT, 206.292.7676 www.acttheatre.org