Off stage, David Newhouse looks nothing like Groucho Marx. His features are more delicate and less defined. He is fair complected and has downier hair.
In makeup—even some of the extreme makeup Julius Marks used when his vaudeville persona become Groucho—Newhouse’s transformation is astounding. Even if he didn’t project as close an image of Groucho as he does, his line delivery, and ability to get laughs, is a tribute to the spontaneously witty comedian who entertained for more than 60 years in vaudeville, theater, movies, radio, television, and concert stages. At no matter which age Newhouse portrays Groucho, he has the voice, the mannerisms, the walk, and the trick of the cigar right.
Add to Newhouse’s performance a wryly funny and winningly human turn by Susan Ferrara Barto as Chico Marx, a sophisticated and sincere homage to Margaret Dumont and other dowagers by Virginia Barrie, and a vaudeville-like string of sketches from Sarah Webster, and you have the recipe for a fun-filled and laugh-strewn good time with GROUCHO: A LIFE IN REVUE from Morrisville’s reliable ActorsNET ensemble.
Joe Doyle directs a smart and sharp company who capture the comedy to which Groucho and his band of brothers treated us for decades, Standard bits are nostalgically welcome and hilariously performed to the point they become timelessly fresh: Grouch’s contract routine with Chico (‘Ey, you can’t-a fool-a me. Everybody knows-a there’s-a no such-a thing as-a Sanity Clause’), Groucho’s appearance as Captain Geoffrey Spaulding at Mrs. Rittenhouse’s (Dumont’s) fancy party (“One day I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”), and various hijinks as Doyle runs down aisles, squeezes a bicycle horn, kisses random audience members, and crooks his leg over Groucho’s outstretched arm as the silent but irrepressible Harpo Marx.
Within the comedy, GROUCHO: A LIFE IN REVUE serves as biography of the entertainer. Written by Groucho’s son, Arthur Marx, and Robert Fisher, the show takes off from Groucho’s famous Carnegie Hall appearance at age 80 and flashbacks to the turn of the last century with Groucho telling jokes about his father being the worst tailor in the Upper East Side and being a kid whose only logical course seemed to be show business. The personal sequences of the play deal mostly with Groucho’s relationship with Chico, his greatest partner in celluloid glory, and one of his biggest conflicts in real life.
Musical sequences are as happily amusing as the comedy routines. Susan Ferrara Barto is trained as a concert pianist, and while Chico claims to be playing Victor Herbert, Barto plays Edvard Grieg with concert hall aplomb, including doing some of Chico’s barrel-house and, of course, making her right hand into a pistol and plunking single notes at the end of phrases as if she was taking aim at a shooting gallery. Doyle uses Harpo’s famous mirror scene to lead his “double,” Gloria Galante, to the harp where, dressed as Harpo, she does a stunning harp solo in keeping with Harpo’s numbers in Marx Brothers movies for MGM. Then, there’s Newhouse finding the right antic silliness for “Hello, I Must Be Going,” “Captain Geoffrey Spaulding,” “Show Me a Rose,” and “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” in which he mock-strains his voice, just as Groucho did.
Groucho’s lines, routines, and delivery are their own reward. So are Harpo’s clowning, Chico’s faultless partnering, and Margaret Dumont’s characters’ hauteur. They would play in almost any production. What makes ActorsNET’s staging so special is how authentic and natural the cast make their characters. There’s a merry spirit that infuses the theater. Everything is happy, jovial, and entertaining. You never want the show to end. Doyle and company make you want to see more. They find the pith and the amiability in Groucho’s recitation of his life. They find the zaniness of the Marx Brothers routines. They find the individual personalities of characters, personalities that made them loveable on screen and keep them interesting and sympathetic. Read full review >> [Heritage Center Theatre, 635 N. Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville, PA] April 17-May 3, 2015; actorsnetbucks.org.