'Animal Crackers' kicks off Center Stage's 51st season

You bet your life: In this show, the secret woid is Groucho. Photo: Credit: Richard Anderson

BALTIMORE, September 16, 2013 – Played convincingly by City Paper Best Actor Bruce Nelson, the legendary Groucho Marx is mounting a major comeback effort at Center Stage. The storied Baltimore theater launches its 51st season with a hilarious revival of the Marx Brother’s stage show (and later 1930 film), “Animal Crackers.”

This classic vaudevillian musical includes all four Marx Brothers (let’s not forget Zeppo) as piano playing Chico (Jonathan Brody), the silent but mischievous Harpo (Brad Aldous) with his horn and outrageous outfits, and hapless straight man Zeppo (Sean Montgomery) join veteran Nelson for two hours of old fashioned slapstick comedy.

Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the hero of the hour! Groucho (Bruce Nelson) and company in Center Stage’s new Animal Crackers. (Credit: Richard Anderson)

“This is a high-flying, laugh-a-minute lunacy at its best, and I can’t wait to see families and kids of all ages come together to enjoy this remarkable musical,” noted Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah.

Groucho Marx is probably best known today, at least among Baby Boomers, for the long-running TV game show, “You Bet Your Life,” that he famously hosted in the 1950s and early 1960s. The Boomers’ parents, however, knew Groucho much earlier, mainly from the thirteen movie comedies he made with his brothers.

“Animal Crackers” may have been the funniest. The show’s farcical story line, set in the 1920s during the Calvin Coolidge administration, features Groucho Marx parading around as celebrity African explorer Captain Spaulding. The rousing title song, sung by Zeppo and the chorus, was “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” This running gag line in the musical lived on thereafter as Groucho’s theme song, which in turn introduced his TV show every week.

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John Scherer and Dina DiCostanza demonstrate how it’s done on the dance floor. (Credit: Richard Anderson)

The music in the show, along with some spectacular tap dancing, flapper outfits and formal wear, worn by Dina DiCostanza, who portrays the lovestruck Arabella, and her love interest Winston, played by John Scherer, reminded the audience just how fashionable vaudeville and the entertainment industry really was from the roaring twenties through the post-war 1950s.

The Mistress of Ceremonies for Animal Crackers’ three ring circus is the formidable Mrs. Rittenhouse, portrayed in this production with outrageous physical presence by Chicago native Catherine Smitko.

Groucho (Bruce Randolph Nelson) demonstrates the essence of life to Mrs. Rittenhouse (Catherine Smiko). (Credit: Richard Anderson)

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Smitko gave the show a balance of feminine energy that held the ensemble of veteran performers together, including the outrageous Hives the Butler and Chandler the fake American millionaire, both adeptly played by Sean Blake.

But what captures the show as well as the audience’s imagination is this production’s spectacular Roaring ‘20s set that includes 500 hand-sewn faux diamonds, courtesy of scenic designer Neil Patel.

An additional visual bonus is the set’s  inlaid marble floor complete with a disappearing trap door, allowing characters to materialize out of suitcases. The mansion quality stage fixtures are also designed to allow plenty of space for musical director Laura Berquist, who accompanies the song and dance routines on piano backed by her four member quartet of live musicians, all of whom contribute to the musically and visually rich environment.

Harpo (Brad Aldous) does his thing for Arabella (Dina DiCostanzo). (Credit: Richard Anderson)

On a scale of one to four, we’d score this production an above-average three-point-five, based on its manic energy, great dancing and eclectic cast.

But an overly long first act drags a bit, and one also wonders whether a revival of a comic character not familiar to today’s younger demographic might prove a problem at the box office.

On the other hand, if you’re a Groucho fan or simply enjoy vintage, vaudeville-style music and comedy, don’t miss your opportunity to cop a free pair of souvenir “Groucho Glasses” complete with greasepaint eyebrows and mustache when you attend the show.

The Center Stage performance of “Animal Crackers” runs through October 13th.  Tickets start at $19 bucks can be reserved by visiting www.centerstage.org.

More from the cast party: L-R: Sean Montgomery, Sean Blake, John Scherer, Dina DiCostanza, Catherine Smitko, Erin Konmar, and Brad Aldous and John Brody kneeling. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)


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Malcolm Lewis Barnes

As a credentialed professional photo journalist, Mr. Barnes writes for the SQUARE BUSINESS journal, served as the Business Editor and columnist for the Washington Informer, and the Community Development writer for The Common Denominator newspaper

Contact Malcolm Lewis Barnes


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