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Hooray for Captain Spaulding

by James Yeara on July 3, 2013

Animal Crackers
Book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, adapted and directed by Henry Wishcamper Williamstown Theatre Festival, Mainstage, through July 13


Wedding Crashers fans, fans of any of the Hangover or Bridesmaids films, Stephen Colbert/Jon Stewart stalwarts, people obsessed with Mel Brooks movies, SNL groupies, lovers of Woody Allen’s writing/directing, or Three Stooges aficionados will love Williamstown Theatre Festival’s current production of Animal Crackers. The 1928 Broadway comedy musical starred the Marx Brothers, and director-adapter Henry Wishcamper (if ever there was a Marx Brothers character name, this is it) wisely keeps the focus on the four brothers’ stage personas but also has his nine-actor cast play multiple parts in head-spinning and side-splitting manner, capturing the manic energy that was the hallmark of the Marx Brothers’ films. Anyone who laughs at any modern comedy, comedian, or satirist since Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo should see the originals, the Holy Grail of 20th century laughs.

Animal Crackers at WTF

If that’s too hyperbolic and lowbrow, consider that Animal Crackers has much in common with Shakespeare’s “merry middle” comedies. The multiple plotlines, the frequent infusion of song and dance, the reliance on both physical and verbal misprisions (mistaking of one thing for another) to create low and high comedy, the lovers separated then reunited by play’s end, the mocking of killjoy authority figures, and the frequent use of the “alienation effect” (calling attention to the artifice of the play by speaking directly to the audience), and the use of stock character types show Animal Crackers to be a descendant of Shakespeare.

And if that’s too academic and far-fetched, it’s is damned funny. Smartly staged, sung, danced, crafted, played, and, most importantly, moved (the physical-comedy direction by Paul Kalina rivals that of Shakespeare & Company’s resident physical-comedy genius Kevin G. Coleman), Wishcamper’s adaptation and direction of Animal Crackers has won all sorts of laughs, guffaws, and giggles on all sorts of stages since it was first produced at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2009.

Animal Crackers centers on the East Egg Long Island home of Mrs. Rittenhouse (a brilliant Ellen Harvey who dances as well as she sets up Groucho aka Captain Spaulding’s non sequiturs). As an old-money yet comely matron, Mrs. Rittenhouse throws a Gatsby-esque weekend society affair to unveil a fabulous surrealist Beaugard painting on loan for the event from the collection of the millionaire and debonair ten-gallon-wearing Roscoe W. Chandler (the equally brilliant Jacob Ming-Trent). To double the social allure, and needle her social rival Mrs. Whitehead (Mara Davi, brilliant in this role and as Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter Arabella and as the muse for the most sublime and moving moment in the show—Harpo’s dream), she also invites the famous African explorer Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Joey Slotnick, so brilliant I suspect he could have played every character).

When Emmanuel Ravelli (Jonathan Brody, brilliant in the Chico role with broad Italian accent and Geppetto costume), the Professor (brilliantly played by Brad Aldous in the Harpo role, right down to the curly blonde wig and sight-gag filled overcoat), tabloid society dirt digger Wally Winston (Joey Sorge, as brilliant dancing as he is dashing off Twitter-length tabloid titillations), the news photographer Mary (Renee Elise Goldsberry brilliantly creating both the ingénue Mary and the gold-digger Grace Carpenter in some impossible quick changes of costume, voice, and physicality), and starving artist (and Mary’s love interest) John Parker (Adam Chanler-Berat, brilliant) join Mrs. Rittenhouse’s affair, the game’s afoot. The Animal Crackers rollercoaster roars into ever higher gears as comedy musical wends its way through songs and dances. “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” “Hello, I Must Be Going,” and “Four of the Three Musketeers” are just a few of the highlights of the former; for dance, the act two opening “Long Island Low Down” is a showstopper.

As for the ending, “Spongebob Squarepants meets Wreck-it Ralph at the battle of Versailles” just begins to scratch at the loopy non sequiturs that wrap up Animal Crackers. And if that doesn’t hint at something for everyone of any age who loves to laugh long and hard and clear, I’ll have my lawyers—Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, and McCormick—look into the matter.


UPDATE: The closing date of the show has been corrected.