Animal Crackers is a crack-up at the Denver Center

The musical Animal Crackers, starring the Marx Brothers, debuted on Broadway in 1928 and was filmed a couple of years later. It's a romp, a trifle — full of puns, malapropisms and visual jokes, and utterly, unabashedly silly. The plot is just an excuse for the crazy brothers, nominally playing actual characters, to visit a Long Island mansion and pull off a series of stunts. There are elements familiar from other Marx Brothers movies and also for the period (think Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, even P.G. Wodehouse): a palatial home staffed by white-gloved retainers; an impassive butler; a majestic grande dame who's continually hoodwinked but, despite this, never fazed; two pairs of young lovers who encounter obstacles and misunderstandings. One of the lovers is a newspaper columnist looking for scoops, the other male lover an ambitious and broke young painter. We also get a great explorer returned from Africa, as well as an evil pair of beautiful female plotters who perform a wonderful number called The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me, which has to be there for pure enjoyment, since it has nothing to do with anything else that's going on. The plot — what there is of it — focuses on a valuable painting that the grande dame, Mrs. Rittenhouse, is showing off for to guests; it's stolen and re-stolen for purposes either nefarious or tender-hearted.

We recognize the Marx Brothers, though they have different names. That explorer, Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding, is Groucho, complete with jet-black mustache and cigar, spinning elaborate scenes, running out into the audience, flirting with Mrs. Rittenhouse because he's after her wealth, and improvising so crazily you can see his fellow actors cracking up — as Groucho himself famously did. Emanuel Ravelli, the one in the odd-shaped hat with a broad fake Italian accent who can play a mean, tricky piano, is Chico. Harpo, aka The Professor, is the silent brother whose movements, facial expressions and sudden toots on a horn say everything that needs to be said. He has an angelic quality, except that he's sometimes sneaky and evil. Zeppo's around, too, moving in and out of various characters.

A sampling of the jokes so unabashedly juvenile that you can't help laughing at them: A prolonged piece of goofery when Groucho interprets the word "weakened" as "weak end," and insists indignantly that he doesn't have one. A number performed in Tarzan costumes for reasons I don't remember. The occasion on which Groucho refers a fellow actor he thinks is messing up to the script and empathizes, "Acting is hard." The things that happen when someone confuses the words "fish" and "flit" and starts spraying for flies. Groucho's take on Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude. And the absolutely wonderful sequence in which Harpo conducts an invisible orchestra. (The actual orchestra,visible on a dais throughout, is terrific.) Few in the audience were around when the Marx Brothers first made their mark; most know the performers through reruns or later homages to their work. But whether the theater-goers were young or old, they all laughed uproariously throughout.

Under the direction of Bruce Sevy, all of the performances are strong, particularly those of Jonathan Brody as Ravelli/Chico, Jonathan Randell Silver as The Professor/Harpo and Jim Ferris as Spaulding/Groucho. Celia Tackaberry holds her own amid all the insanity as Mrs. Rittenhouse; Jeremy Benton, playing Wally Winston, turns out to be a nice, light-footed tapper; and Stephanie Rothenberg displays a charming soprano in a couple of roles. The visual gags — faces at the window, hyperactive clouds — are a fun surprise, and so is the way the strip of neon lighting framing the bright art-deco set sometimes dances with the music. The costumes — and there are dozens of them as people rush hither and yon changing characters and clothing — are a delight.

It's wonderful what the Denver Center can do with a piece of pure entertainment like Animal Crackers. Now if only the company would apply the same level of creativity, adventurousness and dedication to season selection and some other productions.

Still, Animal Crackers is a hoot. If it has a theme, it's the victory of chaos over order — the pie in a dignitary's face, the finger in an august eye. But, really, who needs a theme when an evening is so full of laughs?

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman