Musical Theatre, Marx Brothers Style

Lauren King Thompson, Amy Perkins and Josh Odsess-Rubin. (Photos courtesy of Daren Scott.)

Only a select few pre-1943 musicals have been revived in the 21st century so far. The shows that continue to be staged are typically produced if there is still the potential to attract modern audiences.

A case in point is Cygnet Theatres production of Animal Crackers, which starred the Marx Brothers. Several of their classic films such as “A Night at the Opera” and “Duck Soup” are famous motion pictures, mainly because of the beloved stars.

If you’ve seen the 1930 movie adaptation, you know what the story is about. Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Josh Odsess-Rubin), the famous African explorer, comes to Long Island to visit socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse’s (Melinda Gilb) home.

She believes the traveler is coming to discuss his numerous trips. What Rittenhouse and the other guests aren’t prepared for are Jeffrey’s smart-alecky attitude and two other mischievous partners in crime – the greedy schemer, Emanuel Ravelli (Spencer Rowe) and the silent child-like nameless professor, (Samantha Wynn Greenstone).

Rather than being a plot-heavy tale, Henry Wishcamper’s 2009 adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s book exists is used as an excuse for jokes, one-liners and songs. Entertaining the theatregoer is the only, and admirable, goal of Animal Crackers.

Using Sean Fanning’s classy set and different parts of the theatre, Artistic Director Sean Murray’s interpretation is both loose and lavish. His staging lets San Diegans feel like they are part of a memorable party where the excitement never seems to end.

Even though a narrative involving a stolen painting exists, it’s rather amazing how little everything that pertains to a plot really matters. Murray embraces that quality, which only makes the light adventure a bigger pleasure to experience.

Comedic moments from the writers feature the type of slapstick, quotable dialogue and humor associated with Groucho and his gang.

Odsess-Rubin captures Groucho’s sly humor and he throws in brand new, clever comedic observations about different San Diego theatres. Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ clothing aids Odsess-Rubin with his take on the voyager.

In a similar manner to that of Groucho, Odsess-Rubin’s fast timing sometimes requires extra attention for one to fully grasp and understand the many quips.

Jeffrey and Rittenhouse’s conversations are a riot, as he says often-crude observations about the society matron. Numerous punchlines are made even more amusing thanks to Gilb’s various reactions.

Greenstone’s and Rowe’s broad antics, as the Harpo and Chico inspired troublemakers, bring uproarious mayhem to different events. She gets to be a physically comic presence and he brings confident slickness during her scenes with him.

One issue with the original silver screen version is that situations never were as hilarious or interesting with characters other than the Marx Brothers and Rittenhouse. That isn’t a problem with Murray’s rendition.

Performers such as Bryan Banville (who primarily portrays the Zeppo Marx-esque Hoaratius Jamison and the boyish painter, John Parker), Russell Garrett, Chaz Feuerstine, Amy Perkins and Lauren King Thompson play various characters that are very funny.

Spencer Rowe, Russell Garrett and Samantha Wynn Greenstone.

Where these performers contribute the most are in the old-fashioned musical numbers by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. They sing tunes like “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” and “Long Island Low Down” with cheery enthusiasm.

Garrett’s choreography and music from an onstage orchestra, under conductor/ keyboardist Terry O’Donnell’s music direction, contribute to Murray’s retro vibe. Garrett’s movements are reminiscent of classic musicals, and the musicians take part in some comical sequences as well.

An element of Animal Crackers that can be improved is Dylan Nielsen’s sound design. While his effects and use of additional score contribute strongly to the vaudevillian atmosphere, audio issues occurred throughout an evening performance.

Starring four charismatic leads, Murray’s presentation is a much-needed eve of enjoyment. Their combined efforts result in a high-spirited salute to a timeless group of comedians.

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[box] Show times are Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m, Fridays at 8:00 p.m, Saturdays at 3:00 p.m and 8:00 p.m and Sundays at 2:00 p.m and 7:00 p.m. [/box]

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Photo of Cygnet Theatre
Cygnet Theatre
Work Old Town Theatre 4040 Twiggs St. San Diego CA 92110 Work Phone: (619) 337-1525 Website: Cygnet Theatre website
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David Dixon

A fan of theatre from a young age, David Dixon began writing reviews while in middle school, for Union Tribune’s Rated G column and sdcnn.com. He was the Entertainment Editor for SDSU’s The Daily Aztec. Currently, he contributes to San Diego Community News Network, a regional reviewer for Talkin’ Broadway, an interviewer for San Diego Theatre Reviews and has won several San Diego Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. David is a San Diego Theatre Critics Circle member, an American Theatre Critics Association member & Regional Theatre Tony Award voter.

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