Frank Ferrante begins his one-person show, “An Evening with Groucho,” at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse on a bittersweet note.
He, Ferrante, is an 11-year-old who has been freed from shyness by idolizing the sharp-witted stage, film, radio, and early television personality Groucho Marx and imitating the flamboyant comedian — immediately identified by a thick moustache, bushy eyebrows, glasses, and cigar — anywhere he can, as home movies attest.
Luck has it that Ferrante lives in Southern California, and Groucho, age 86 and near his death in 1977, is going to appear in concert there. Fittingly, Frank’s father takes him to see the man who changed Frank’s life, in ways that are not yet likely or apparent.
But Groucho is not Groucho, at first, anyhow. He stares blankly at his audience and doesn’t seem ready to bat out his brilliant stream of conscience or burst into one of his signature songs, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” the slightly risque ditty sung in the 1939 film “At the Circus.”
Then someone in the audience yells out a question that Groucho answers with his patented quickness and sarcasm. Then comes another, followed by the comedian’s merciless sharp reply, and the show gets started.
In New Hope Ferrante tells this story in his own voice, but when he talks about the questions and answers, his voice changes and the timbre you hear is definitely and unmistakably “the one, the only” Groucho — as the emcee introduced him on his “You Bet Your Life” television game show.
Many people have played Groucho Marx. Frank Ferrante embodies him.
Fighting a tough crowd that appreciated but didn’t respond avidly to Ferrante’s verbal gags and audience participation tricks, the actor never lost his inner Groucho and, in what was a series of set pieces and ad-libbed responses, stayed witty, funny, and precisely on point with deft badinage that would have made the man born Julius Marx proud.
“An Evening with Groucho” is a combination of Ferrante as storyteller, Groucho as entertainer, and both as lightning-fast raconteurs.
Ferrante suspends character to begin stories about the popular Depression-era stage and film comedy team created by the real-life Marx Brothers, their origins, and various adventures, and then lets Groucho take over to continue a history or close with a punch line.
The technique gives an overview of a major talent who also had a life and who was genuinely close to and affectionate towards his five brothers: Leonard (Chico), Adolph (Harpo), Julius (Groucho), Gummo (Milton), and Zeppo (Herbert).
We learn how the Marx Brothers got the nicknames that stayed with them throughout their careers. We hear about Chico’s womanizing and gambling, Harpo’s intellect, and Zeppo being the funniest of them all while, on screen, he was the straight man.
Groucho — whose nickname reflects his grumbling personality — dominates. He tells most of the stories, including famous ones about his hatred for legendarily vindictive film mogul Louis B. Mayer, his adoration of his matronly and frequent screen foil Margaret Dumont, and his put-down of an anti-Semitic country club: When told he couldn’t use the club’s pool because he was Jewish, Groucho countered with, “My daughter’s only half Jewish. Can she go into the pool from the waist down?”
Then there are the routines. Ferrante does a panoply of Groucho’s riffs from Marx Brothers movies, e.g. the complete “Captain Jeffrey Spaulding” number from the 1928 Broadway play-turned-hit film “Animal Crackers.” It includes all the famous asides and clever word play.
There is also a generous supply of Groucho repertoire tunes by Marx Brothers’ backstage talents, including the era’s hit songwriters Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby and playwrights Morrie Ryskind and George S. Kaufman — the latter two creating the Brothers’ first Broadway and film hit, “The Coconuts.” Though Kaufman — a New York and Bucks County writer who matched Groucho’s barbed wit — tended to deny writing Groucho’s musical material, he usually did so with a wink.
The comedic Captain Spaulding song “Hello, I Must Be Going” — where he “comes to say I cannot stay” but does — serves as bookends for the opening and ending of Ferrante’s show. In between are songs from Marx’ hit films, including “Horse Feathers,” where college president Groucho announces in song to the faculty “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.” Then there is Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Tit Willow,” a nod to Groucho’s 1960 performance on the nationally broadcasted TV production of “The Mikado.”
Taking a cue from the show he saw at age 11, Ferrante spends a lot of time in the audience. He is looking for Groucho fans and for younger folks who may know the Marx Brothers vaguely.
Here is where Ferrante, on his own and most of the time without a script, shows his mettle. With Groucho-like resilience, he bats back anything anyone says with a pointed remark. Encountering 26-year-olds on a date, he notes they brought down the median age of their row by 50 years. And they did!
No doubt about it, Frank Ferrante is a Groucho scholar, and he has been playing him since he was 22. The timing, the exaggerated hornpipe dance, the inflections are all precisely performed and never sound stale, pat, or packaged. Spontaneity was Groucho’s gift, and Ferrante has it.
And despite this recent night’s tough audience, Ferrante’s enthusiasm and energy never flagged. And while the audience may have been watchers more than participants, they proved admiring and demonstrative when it came to Ferrante’s curtain calls.
And rightfully so. In addition to his copious talent, Ferrante showed himself to be a vaudeville trouper. Aiding and abetting Ferrante as accompanist and occasional harmonist is Gerald Sternbach, and a set was well-crafted from Bucks County Playhouse props and furniture.
“An Evening with Groucho” remains an evening that is the closest you’ll get to seeing that Pantheon comedian, Groucho Marx, as Frank Ferrante paints on the signature mustache, assumes the lecherous leer, and leans forward, flicking cigar ashes, in Groucho’s grousing walk.
And for those old enough to remember, yes, the famous line about “taking out” the cigar, a line that forced “You Bet Your Life” from live to taped television in the 1950s, is there — same with the duck. See for yourself. You’ll have a great time.
An Evening with Groucho, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, February 25. $35 to $55. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.