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Frank Ferrante has been performing his solo show An Evening With Groucho for more than 40 years, winning awards and accolades from Broadway to London’s West End. He’s visited more than 500 cities worldwide, and now he’s at Stage West until Nov. 12.
It’s an energetic and loving tribute to one of the most revered American comedians of all time who was just as much at home on stage, radio and television as he was in film.
Ferrante has Groucho’s slouching walk, long-legged strides, bounding leaps and cigar-twirling shenanigans down to a science, so they never seem like affectations, but rather an intrinsic part of the man. Once Ferrante paints on the exaggerated eye-brows, the actor leaves the stage and Groucho takes over.
The 90-minute show is a time warp to the 1930s, and Stage West is meant to be a Hollywood club or theatre where Groucho Marx is doing a solo act. This never actually happened, but it’s Ferrante imagining what it would have been like.
Groucho was famous for his irreverent, improvised humour, always at the expense of people in his audiences. It’s shtick that Ferrante has honed to an art. He zeroes in on certain people in the audience, lovingly berating them for supposedly nodding off, or commenting on their choice of wardrobe, and even their choice of partners. He’ll sit on someone’s knee as he wanders through the tables at Stage West, or send someone out to the lobby to fetch a cup of specialty coffee. Like any great improviser, Ferrante knows who to choose, and how far to push the joke so that each patsy enjoys the barbs as much as the rest of the audience.
Understandably, many people attending An Evening With Groucho might not even know who the man was. He and his brothers were at the height of their film popularity in the 1930s with films like Duck Soup, A Day at the Races, A Day at the Opera and Room Service. His radio and TV show, You Bet Your Life, had a remarkable 15-year life but that ended in 1961. Ferrante is careful to talk about Groucho’s personal and professional life through his banter with the audience so no one should feel left out. Ferrante does this in a way that doesn’t sound like a lecture.
Ferrante is joined on stage by pianist Mark Rabe, who accompanies him for such iconic songs as Hooray for Captain Spalding and Lydia, the Tattooed Lady from the Marx Brothers movies. Rabe is much more than an accompanist. Groucho always had a straight man for his verbal and physical high jinx. In the films, it was a wonderful woman named Margaret Dumont. It was always her job to look confused, which she often claimed she was. This is the case with Rabe. Ferrante jumps onto the piano and even plays the piano with his feet, elbows and backside, much to Rabe’s feigned astonishment, and the audience’s raucous amusement.
Groucho got his start in vaudeville, an art that assaults the audience with its tireless energy. It’s something we rarely see in live entertainment these days. It was the kind of exaggerated antics that made The Carol Burnett Show so much silly fun, and that makes An Evening with Groucho such an unexpected pleasure.
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