SEE THIS: Animal Crackers At The Goodman Theatre

By Julienne Bilker in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 1, 2009 8:40PM

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photo of Jonathan Brody, Stanley Wayne Mathis and Molly Brennan by Eric Y. Exit
We realize we’ve written a lot of “but” reviews lately. As in “it’s good, but…” Although it probably wouldn’t be very interesting to read, we really do wish we could tell you everything we see is good - we love theatre, and we want you to love theatre too. So we’re both relieved and slightly giddy to be able to say to you all: The Goodman Theatre’s Animal Crackers is damn good theatre.

A Marx Brothers classic, Animal Crackers debuted on Broadway in 1928. The Goodman’s production is a revival with a few slight adjustments - namely, director Henry Wishcamper has restored material cut from the original script, and turned the cast of thousands (well, not really, but it’s big) into an ensemble of just nine actors. Excuse us, nine ridiculously talented actors. There are, of course, small updates and ad-libs, but the spirit of the show remains completely intact.

Hardcore Marx Brothers fans are probably suspicious of anyone attempting to recreate their iconic personas - but the actors honor their roles’ creators while still personalizing their performances. There is never a sense of watching cookie-cutter impersonations. Complete with pasted-on mustache and eyebrows, Joey Slotnick (Groucho/Captain Spaulding) has mastered Groucho’s stalking walk and brisk, disengaged delivery. By “disengaged,” we mean he’s the only character who acknowledges the ridiculousness in which he’s involved, and to that end, is aware of and in direct conversation with the audience. This came in particularly handy when a few jokes elicited groans from the audience - Slotnick’s quick responses (“These are the jokes folks! Addams Family doesn’t open ‘til November!” or “They can’t all be good!”), delivered with a slight air of disdain, kept things rolling. Jonathan Brody is spot-on as Chico/Emanuel Ravelli, playing zookeeper to Harpo as well as he plays piano. As Harpo/The Professor, Molly Brennan’s expert clowning is magnified by her wide-eyed, lost puppy-who-might’ve-been-hit-a-little-too-hard look. We’re struggling to find words to explain how funny she is. We don’t have them. She’s just f'ing hilarious.

Slotnick, Brody and Brennan are truly fantastic - but the show wouldn’t be successful if the ensemble weren’t equally so. Besides the vaudevillian humor, the show’s structure is decidedly old-school as well, meaning romantic song and dance numbers are interspersed throughout. There is huge potential for these moments to bring the show to a grinding halt, but they’re done so well, you’d have to be made of stone to not enjoy them. Tony Yazbeck and Mara Davi, who each play multiple roles, are true triple-threats. Their dances, with fun and impressive choreography by John Carrafa, are as well-polished as their voices - and they’re funny. Stanley Wayne Mathis, Ora Jones, Jessie Mueller and Ed Kross also have the opportunity to showcase both their comedic chops and their voices, and the result is pure hilarity and awesome. We have to call out Jessie Mueller in particular for her ability to pull out bluesy stuff as easily as soprano ballads, although her voice really sparkles with the latter. Extra kudos to Ora Jones as well, for taking an insane spill down a flight of stairs (on purpose), and bringing out some comedy in a "foil" role.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a few others whose efforts make this production work on every level. Jenny Mannis has recreated the Marx Brothers’ costumes to a T, and we don’t even want to know how much velcro is involved in making all the quick changes happen. Robin Vest’s set evokes the era without taking it too seriously - the chandeliers and curtains are two-dimensional - and allows the orchestra, led by music director Doug Peck, to integrate seamlessly into the action when necessary. We can only assume that the success of Brennan’s clown routines has something to do with clown director Paul Kalina - and while we’re at it, congrats as well to those who are rarely mentioned unless their jobs are done poorly, lighting designer and sound designer Matthew Richards and Richard Woodbury, respectively.

Seriously people - see this show.

Animal Crackers, through November 1, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets $25-$76 (half-price tix available day-of-show, $10 tix available for students day-of-show, group discounts available), 312-443-3800.