Riding the ever – popular wave of nostalgia, tribute acts have a very special place in the entertainment world.
With their shared knack for mimicry, first class impressionists like (the late) Jim Bailey, Christina Bianco, Rich Little, and Christine Pedi pay loving homage to some of the biggest players in show business. Fronting musical parodies like ‘Forbidden Broadway’ or touring the world solo, these artists capture the vocal and physical mannerisms of legends like Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, James Stewart, and many others with detailed and often, scary accuracy.
For more than thirty years, Frank Ferrante has been delighting audiences in three different continents as Groucho Marx.
As a youngster, the Californian native fell in love with everything Marx. From the brothers’ screwball comedies to Groucho’s long – running television game show, “You Bet Your Life’, Ferrante was completely smitten with their timeless humour.
During high school, he was given the rare opportunity to play Groucho in a theatrical production about the siblings’ rise to fame called ‘Minnie’s Boys’. The bug soon took hold, and there was no looking back.
Later as a student at the University of Southern California, one of Ferrante’s lecturers asked him to mount a show in exchange for extra credit. He found the perfect vehicle in ‘An Evening With Groucho’ (written by the late John Bay).
Ferrante got in touch with Elaine Stritch, who had been married to Bay, to secure the rights. With her blessing, his performance drew several important guests. Two of Groucho’s children, Miriam and Arthur Marx, came to see the show.
Arthur even offered Ferrante the pivotal lead in a biographical play he had written called “Groucho: A Life In Revue.” That production eventually played Off – Broadway and in London, winning Ferrante several prestigious awards in the process.. When an abbreviated version aired on PBS, Ferrante received so many requests from impresarios to perform Groucho on stage, he decided to resurrect ‘An Evening With Groucho’.
Ardent fans will immediately embrace Ferrante’s mind – boggling act.
From Groucho’s inimitable walk and eye – rolling asides, it truly feels like one is spending time with the man in question, Ferrante is that good. For viewers new to the Marx Brothers knockabout brand of wit, fear not. the show’s clever construction is a crash – course in Groucho’s long and esteemed career.
Structurally, ‘An Evening With Groucho’ is very much in line with traditional cabaret.
Prop – driven staging sets the tone. The space includes a grand piano placed to one side, a movie poster from ‘Horse Feathers’, a gramophone, a chaise lounge, a vanity dresser, a hat – stand, and naturally, a pith helmet.
Beginning the show as himself, Ferrante talks about his introduction to the Brothers’ work and how it subsequently influenced this unusual career choice. Soon, sitting at the vanity dresser, and applying Groucho’s greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, his transformation is astounding. Jumping into character, from that point onwards it is very much a day at the races.
As Groucho, he recaps the brothers’ start in vaudeville to how they acquired their unique stage names. Ferrante also sings a handful of trademark tunes including “Hello, I Must Be Going,” “Hooray For Captain Spaulding,” and “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady”.
The show also features countless points of interest.
In particular, Ferrante includes several fun stories about his dutiful on – screen foil, Margaret Dumont. (Would you believe she never understood their jokes!) What begins as a memorable evening of career highlights, celebrity – driven anecdotes, playful interludes and witty wordplay, becomes so much more.
For many years the brothers treaded the boards on the American vaudeville circuit. They quickly earned a reputation for straying from their writer’s text, hijacking both scripted dialogue and audiences with improvised antics. This madcap quality became what they were known for, and people everywhere loved it.
Audiences attending ‘An Evening With Groucho’, come prepared with your ‘A Game’.
With certain irony, Ferrante applies Groucho’s unpredictable ad – libbing to his act and runs with it. At times he smashes the fourth wall, bantering with punters and playfully teasing them. Several latecomers never stood a chance as he swung focus in their direction. All while staying completely in character, meaning no two shows will surely be quite the same. By mixing rehearsed elements with these improvisations gives the experience a loose, almost spontaneous tone.
In act two, Ferrante even grabbed a ‘volunteer’ from the crowd.
As Groucho, that he was able to mine comic gold from even the most innocent answers to some fairly straightforward questions, his target never had a hope! The ability to think on his feet lightning fast, potentially drawing on a career – long archive of scenarios and outcomes, was simply brilliant.
Supported by Alex Wignall on keyboard, allowed Ferrante to recreate some of Groucho’s best – known musical highlights. Apart from the above – mentioned pieces, Ferrante also covered a song cut from ‘A Day At The Races’ as well as a moving version of ‘Everybody Says I Love You’. (It should be noted that Wignall was a good sport as ‘straight man’.)
Marx was also a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, and later in his career on prime – time television, he played Koko – The Lord High Executioner from their operetta masterpiece, ‘The Mikado’. Detailing that information to the audience, Ferrante then gave a charming rendition of ‘Tit Willow’.
With a running time of two hours (plus a fifteen minute interval), one can imagine this is the kind of show Groucho would be doing if he were still with us today. Ferrante’s love for the great master transcends this experience, and takes this format to another level.
Ferrante closed the show with a touching story about Groucho’s final days, ending it with the perfect quip only Marx could make. He is also a tremendously generous artist, spending time with fans after the show for photo opportunities and programs signings, too. Without giving too much more away, this is a must – see show which has to be watched in person to be fully appreciated. In Ferrante’s capable hands, the Marx Brothers’ legacy will surely live on.
Playing until Saturday November 19 at Chapel off Chapel (as part of a whirlwind Australian tour), if you’re in the mood for some family – friendly nostalgia (with moments of inspired spontaneity as well), this is the ideal treat.