Frank Ferrante is about to bring his highly lauded and award winning show, An Evening With Groucho, to Chapel Off Chapel for its Melbourne debut and we should all be very, very excited. Ferrante is an American actor and director who is described by The New York Times as “the greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx’s material.” Marx was a comedy genius and regarded by many as America’s most gifted funny man. Ferrante has been performing Groucho for 30 years and the bond is highly emotional

“An Evening With Groucho is my expression of love for the subject that began when I was exhilarated by my first  Marx Brothers’ film “A Day at the Races” when I was 10,” says Ferrante. “I never laughed so hard. It propelled me into the local library where I researched the Marxes and many comedians of that era. As a theater student at the University of Southern California, I presented the show as a senior project. Groucho Marx’s son, playwright Arthur Marx attended and said, “If I ever do a show about my father, I would like to use you.” And he stuck to his word. In a year’s time, I was portraying Groucho from age 15 to 85  in Arthur’s play “Groucho: A Life in Revue” which won critical praise and accolades in New York and  London. Over the past fifteen years I have returned to “An Evening With Groucho” which is less biographical and more free wheeling allowing for a great deal of improvisation, story telling, songs, one-liners and routines from his films. The improv and audience interaction keep me invested. That challenge. No two shows are alike. I believe his life is important. Groucho is a significant comic artist. Arguably the best. The laugh makers…we need them. I am in awe of the persona, the character he created and am honored to perpetuate his legacy through my show. After 30 plus years, more than 3000 performances…I feel I get under his skin. I am grateful to him. For so many of us shy kids, his brash, wise guy humor served as armor. Groucho is an alter ego for so many of us.”

frank-body-1 Born to poor immigrant parents in New York’s upper Eastside in 1890, Marx and his brothers paved the way for many contemporary comedians and were revolutionaries of their field. To capture the essence of the man, Ferrante has worked hard to uncover truths about his alter ego, some surprising.

“Though Groucho’s persona onstage, in film and television is of the classic wisecracker…he was in fact by his own description a serious man,” reveals Ferrante. “Groucho was quite concerned about his children and this is evidenced within the hundreds of letters sent to his daughter Miriam and stories that both Arthur and Mir have shared with me. He was a fully engaged father. Not perfect but present and loving particularly when they were younger – and under his roof.  Also, I was surprised by the extent of his intellectual curiosity and his desire to learn. Groucho never made it past the sixth grade. And yet he is considered one of America’s, the world’s greatest wits. Groucho kept a dictionary in the glove compartment of his car. And even after suffering several strokes, at age 86 he was still recommending books that he was reading. I witnessed that at an appearance of his in 1976. I was 13. He encouraged the audience to read “Scoundrel Time” by Lillian Hellman.”

Although very different from one another, Ferrante acknowledges some common ground between the two men. ” But both of us can smell a phony and like to shake it up,” he says. “I love what I do and always have and hope to continue to work in this profession well into my eighties just as Groucho did.”

frank-body-2 Ferrante feels a responsibility to ‘get it right’ – not just the physicality and sound but the spirit of the man and his humor. “I have always approached the role as an actor and never considered myself an impersonator,” he says. “There are magnificent entertainers who impersonate and I respect that skill. But “An Evening With Groucho” is a theater piece, a hybrid of theater, musicals and stand-up comedy. Nuance is key for me more so than ever. This is a 90 minute two act portrayal that attempts to conjure what it may have been like to see one of the funniest people to grace the planet in an intimate setting.”

Ferrante has evolved the show so awareness of who Groucho is is irrelevant because he doesn’t believe audience members need to be familiar. “The show is a comedy with music that demonstrates Groucho Marx’s particular brand of comedy – brash, energetic, fast paced, absurd,” he says. “It is anecdotal, there are clever songs (with accompaniment by Alex Wignall), classic one-liners and routines and plenty of ad-libbing and improvisation. My goal is to share his style and whip the audience up into a frenzy of laughter. Directed by Dreya Weber, the piece continues to evolve.”

Ferrante explains that Groucho Marx and the Marx Brothers are currently having a resurgence. “Their first five Paramount films have just been re-mastered and released this past month. Four books have been published this past year. Marx Brothers film festivals in LA and New York. Many articles discussing this trend in major publications. Perhaps, it’s the times we live in – the political climate. We need to laugh. We need the Marx Brothers to rip it all apart…again.”

An Evening With Groucho

November 14 – 19

Photography: Michael Doucett