An Evening With Groucho
All the way home from The Central Heating Lab’s "An Evening With Groucho" at ACT Theater, my partner and I were belting out "Lydia, oh Lydia, say have you met Lydia? Lydia, the TATtooed lady!"
We also almost had an extra passenger: a 15-year-old boy who apparently walked all the way from Ballard to see the show downtown and who charmed both Frank Ferrante, starring as Groucho, and everyone in the audience. That should give you a sense of the feelings of delight and community we felt after the show.
Part biography, part tribute, part faithful re-creation of old Groucho material, and part cabaret, "An Evening With Groucho" is 100% full of love for Groucho Marx. Frank Ferrante enters the stage as himself and, as he tells the story of how he became enamored with all things Groucho Marx as a young boy, he transforms himself into the character.
The first time Ferrante saw Groucho live, the actor was in his 80’s, looking nothing like the mustachioed character with bushy eyebrows and a cigar we know from film, but when someone asked him, "Are you making another Marx Brothers movie?," he snapped back, "No, I’m answering stupid questions!" Ferrante saw and fell for the flavor of humor that made Groucho what he was.
Interspersed between the old songs and comedy bits are fascinating peeks into the history of the Marx Brothers as well as plenty of audience participation. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what it’s called when the actor heckles the audience! I was afraid to take notes during the show lest I attract Ferrante/Groucho’s attention.
Audience participation requires a light touch on the part of an actor and Ferrante does it well so that we leave the show feeling like we’ve been brought together into one large and satisfied community. "What’s your name?" He asked one young girl. "Margo," she said. "Polo!" He shot back. He elicited from another young man that he was there because his grade in Drama depended on it. "Ah!," said Groucho, "So you were dragged here against your will?"
Theater that brings people together and lets us know that we’re not alone in the room or in the world is special, and "An Evening With Groucho," directed by Dreya Weber, does it well. After the show, the audience chatted together like old friends and we stuck around to see if the boy from Ballard needed a ride home.
I’m talking about it as if it’s a one-man show, but equally important to the evening is Jim Furmston, the music director. On stage the entire time, he disappears into the corner with the piano when the music is simply to set the mood, but reappears to be the straight man when Ferrante needs him for a comic moment.
At one point, Furmston tinkles the piano keys to simulate a phone ringing, but when Ferrante picks up the receiver, Furmston keeps going. Ferrante deadpans in his direction, "I got it." And there’s a wonderful physical bit of humor when Furmston plays the intro to a piece over and over again, while a frustrated Ferrante tries to anticipate when he’ll launch into the song itself.
Ferrante seems to channel Groucho himself, and if you love Groucho Marx you’ll enjoy seeing him brought back to life. But even if you know nothing about Groucho and frankly couldn’t care less, I’d bet you’d still have a good time at this show. Every performance is different depending on the interactions with the audience.
Frank Ferrante has been portraying Groucho on stage for 25 years and was called by The New York Times "the greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx’s material." His love for the man and the material shines through. Go see it!
"An Evening With Groucho" runs through May 20 at A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union St. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-292-7676 or visit http://www.acttheatre.org/