Out with a laugh: Gretna ends season with ‘An Evening with Groucho’

By on August 29, 2018

It’s all fun and games until someone — meaning me — gets called out in front of a packed theatre… then it gets really fun!

The final regular performance of the 2018 Mount Gretna Theatre season opened as funny man Frank Ferrante brought down the house Thursday, Aug. 28 with ‘An Evening with Groucho.’

Part one-man show (two if you count accompanist Alex Rybeck, who served as both launching pad for and the butt of several jokes) and part historical biography, ‘An Evening with Groucho’ takes a look at the life and career of Julius Henry Marx, better known as Groucho.

Born in Manhattan in 1890, Groucho was one of five children raised in the artisan metropolis who went on to a successful vaudeville career with his brothers “Chico” “Harpo” “Gummo” and “Zeppo.” Eventually Hollywood took note of the Marx brothers and Groucho starred in 13 feature films, most notably “Animal Crackers” (1930), “Duck Soup” (1933), and “A Night at the Opera” (1935). Groucho also had a stellar solo career and hosted a television and radio quiz show called “You Bet Your Life.” The funny man known for his silly walk and exaggerated expressions died in 1977 at the age of 86.

Ferrante — who visited Groucho during the ends of his days — opens the show, which he wrote from his own experience with Groucho and those of the comedian’s son Arthur, with a heartfelt introduction as he transforms from the actor before us into Groucho by donning the signature greasepaint mustache, round spectacles, and wild hair. The show was all downhill from there, literally.

Between performing musical highlights from Marx Brothers’ movies entwined with first and secondhand accounts of Groucho’s life, Ferrante made his way off stage, in character, into the crowd while improvising like a standup comedian much to the chagrin of some audience members but to the delight of everyone else. Some viewers were chastised for their stoic reception to one-liners. Many became the punchline for jokes on aging. Love, hair loss, drinking habits — it was all fair game.

I, after spending the first act taking notes* on the performance in clear view of Ferrante, was made to stand and address the crowd while “Groucho” played with my beard, teased me about my hair, and ultimately bribed me with $500 to write a good review of the entertainment. In full disclosure, I did not get any money from Mr. Ferrante for writing this review. Audience members afterwards approached me and told me I should have taken him up on his offer.

More than a character portrayal, “An Evening with Groucho” is an honorable homage to the iconic comedian. Ferrante is the perfect man to take on the task. He has been performing as Groucho for 33 years with more than 3,000 performances since taking on the role in “Groucho: A Life in Review” written by Arthur Marx; at the time Ferrante was a drama student at the University of Southern California. The New York Times called him “the greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx’s material.” His curriculum vitae outside of “Groucho” includes numerous award-winning roles, international tours, and directorial merits. He’s even a question on Jeopardy: He took his portrayal of Groucho Marx to New York in 1986.

I’ll take hilarious entertainers for $500, Alex. No, seriously, I did not get any money from Ferrante for writing this review. He now heads north to Peekskill, N.Y., to perform “An Evening with Groucho” at the Paramount Hudson Theater in September. Ferrante’s performance at Mount Gretna Theatre marks the end of the 2018 season, but directors have already announced the 2019 season, which includes Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano,” “Rounding Third,” “Oliver!” the regional premiere of “Murder for Two,” and ends with a special performance from the USO Show Troupe. The professional theatre is one of the oldest summer theatres in America with roots to 1892 and has produced shows since 1927.

*Scribbled in the margin of my playbill for “An Evening with Groucho” are the following notes, which did not make it into the review: laugh a minute, engaged the crowd with pointed wit and sheer maniacal humor, unrelenting, hilarious.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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