Opening Nights: An Evening With Groucho

A comedy legend reminisces.

Not many people love Groucho Marx as I do. Yet it's easy to imagine that a dwindling number of comedy fans remember him (1890–1977), his brothers, or their classic movies of the '30 and '40s. He was the consummate trickster in the grandest sense of commedia dell'arte—a figure like Bugs Bunny or Borat who inhabits a world where it's possible to taunt, defy, and mock authority figures without ever having to pay a penalty for such insolence.

Frank Ferrante also loves Groucho, and this one-man show is the closest recreation of his brilliant anarchic wit and stiletto tongue you're likely to witness. It's a freewheeling stream-of-consciousness romp, equal parts autobiography and musical revue. Ferrante also pays tribute to Groucho's last showbiz hurrah, the radio (and later television) game show You Bet Your Life, by grilling audience members, too.

Having perfected his act over 25 years, Ferrante doesn't need much of a set. There's the vanity where he paints on Groucho's eyebrows and mustache; an old chair and vintage phone, to hector his next sputtering victim; and the redoubtable Jim Furmston on piano, as straight man and accompanist. The show includes all the vaudeville and big-screen anecdotes you'd hope for: how the Marx Brothers evolved from a musical act into four unique comic characters, how they got their nicknames, how they swapped Zeppo for Gummo, etc.

Ferrante and Furmston perform a number of classic songs from the Marx Brothers' heyday, including "Hooray for Captain Spaulding," "Hello, I Must Be Going," and "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." While his singing is no better or worse than Groucho's, it's the wicked asides that you'll remember. Here's an old gag Ferrante reprises: Groucho, to a woman on You Bet Your Life: "How old are you?" Woman (aghast): "Why, I'm approaching 40." Groucho (eyebrows bouncing): "Oh, really? From which direction?"

Ferrante also reveals Groucho's gentler side in reminiscences of his departed brothers and his longtime comic foil, Margaret Dumont. Through it all, Groucho's glee and Ferrante's delight in playing him come shining through. In the pantheon of American comedy, the nation reveres satirists Mark Twain for his homespun tales and Will Rogers for his aw-shucks manner. A brainy Jew from New York, Groucho nudged those rustics aside with urban zingers that Ferrante delivers with a marksman's accuracy.

 
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