Hello I must be going: Ferrante brings back Groucho Marx
Reviewed by Tyler Dean | Photographs by Tyler Dean
Cirque-A-Palooza’s “A Night with Groucho” | Pasadena Playhouse
Saturday, 27 July 2013 | 39 S. Molino Ave | Pasadena CA | 91101
“Well, if we’d left when we were supposed to then we wouldn’t be late,” says an older man to his wife. I take in the deep red of the carpet underfoot, the adobe-like walls of the Spanish-styled theater house, and can hear the dull roar of an audience-in-waiting from around the corner.
A moment later, I enter the balcony of the Pasadena Playhouse to find it considerably full. The dull roar has become a sort of controlled pandemonium: conversing friends attempting to out-shout the couples next to them, parents getting their children situated, and ushers guiding newcomers to the scattering of open seats. From afar, it all reminds me of King Vidor’s The Crowd, and I was about to join in feet first.
I am immediately approached by one of the ushers as I peruse the empty spots just near the balcony, and tell her I am by myself. She joins me in my looking at the first few rows.
A couple of seconds and attempted chair hijackings later, I find a seat in the balcony’s second row and begin taking in the timely atmosphere of my surroundings. The look of the Playhouse is pretty consistent with what I saw from the hallway – adobe-like walls, red used smartly in the carpeting and curtains, but I realize I’m waiting for something. I muse over the Pasadena Playhouse’s rich history – having opened in 1924, the Playhouse has played host to such revered alumni as Raymond Burr, Dustin Hoffman, and Eve Arden – that’s something to wait for! The entire inside is a collection of such a storied gathering on an equally historic night that is has me giving in to cravings of smoke-screened viewing and the sticky nicotine-covered walls of yesteryear.
As the lights’ dim and work their magic, I can’t help but feel as if I’m traveling back in time. I take a look over the balcony and down to the crowds below, and that’s when I see it. An open solo seat a mere 15 feet from the stage. I immediately head towards the usher.
“Seating for one,” I throw out, hoping. The usher’s face becomes one of recognition and begins walking me from the back of the theater to the front. Success. As we move down the carpeted aisle, a woman from the middle of the crowd turns and we locks eyes. She begins waving. I turn to the usher, who has extended his arm towards the direction of the woman in a manner that bespeaks itself: that is where you will be sitting tonight.
I have never seen this woman before, but nonetheless I make my way down the row behind her to the seat she had been pointing. Settling in, I take out my pen and notebook and begin scribbling notes – the sounds, the coolness of the room, the red of the walls and curtains, the set-up of the–
“Are you press?” I look up to find the woman who’d waved me over, turned around in her seat and smiling at me.
Smiling back at her, “Yes, I write for A Taste of Dawn.”
We talk for a little while longer – I finish telling her a little about the magazine, she tells me that she and her group had just finished taking the Cirque-A-Palooza Master Course – before I turn back to my note taking.
Just then, the lights begin to dim as a loud voice comes on over the loudspeakers, the once-deafening shouts of a crowd in conversation with itself dying down as a spotlight follows impresario and tonight’s host Stefan Haves down the right side of the theater to the main stage. Mr. Haves is known for “frequently drawing on LA talent to re-invent physical theater, circus, and clowning — stubbornly breaking every artistic wall in a town whose theatrical conventions and filmic traditions often tend toward maintaining that stubborn ‘fourth wall’ [pasadenaplayhouse.org].”
“Welcome to Cirque-A-Palooza!” Haves shouts over the competing applause. He then introduces tonight’s event, ‘An Evening with Groucho’, commenting that Frank Ferrante actually did this act 24 years prior, in this exact theater. The crowd goes nuts; I can immediately tell that I’m in for a special treat. After going over a few more particulars, Mr. Haves is dutifully applauded exiting the stage, and the room is cast into an abyss of black as the lights go completely out.
The lights reignite center-stage to reveal a bearded man dressed in very dapper attire with a rose in his hand. Cue applause. He nods in a manner only appropriate for a gentleman of his stature, and takes his place in front of a piano situated at stage right. Bending over, he grabs his coattails and throws them back in an exaggerated manner, moving at the same time to sit. As he prepares to adjust his shirt cuffs, the audience once more breaks out in applause. The gentleman, beside himself, stands and accepts the applause. I’m scribbling furiously, taking advantage of the little light left to me.
Silence. I look up as the gentleman prepares to sit again. Once more, he throws out his coattails. Once more, he sits and begins to adjust his shirt cuffs. Once more, applause. Gotta love vaudeville.
This goes on a couple more times before the gentleman finally shushes the few clappers left in the crowd who decide this is what they came to see tonight. He belts out a symphonic sampling of tonight’s musical score. Now, I have to be honest. I had no idea what songs he was referencing, nor would I remember if the songs sung later in the act were the same from that opening piece. All I know is I loved it.
The pianist finishes as another booming voice blasts through speakers situated around the room: “Bravo! Bravo!” A man whom I can only assume to be Mr. Frank Ferrante makes his way to the front of the stage and jumps up to add his applause to ours. As our enthusiasm finds a mild compromise with Ferrante’s eagerness, he welcomes us to tonight’s show and gives us a little background on his connection with the perennial identity of the Marx Brothers and how he himself came to not only contribute to the enduring magic of such film classics as Duck Soup or Day at the Races, but to carry that magic in the physicality of acts such as the one we would be seeing tonight.
We listen with rapt attention as Ferrante paces the stage, telling us his story. Eventually he sits down at a little table situated opposite of the piano and begins applying make-up behind a miniature mirror. Wait, what? I look up from my notes and realize that Ferrante is literally changing himself, right there on stage, in front of us, into Groucho Marx. Now, I’ve been told I tend to get excited pretty easily, but when Groucho Marx emerged from behind that little mirror, Ferrante nowhere to be seen, I about lost my mind (and let’s be honest, so did the rest of the audience). It was seamless. It wasn’t forced or hokey. And it was very indicative Mr. Ferrante’s stage presence.
The show itself was a living slideshow of the Marx Brothers and “show biz” history through the voice and body of Ferrante/Groucho. However, it would be too easy to say it was like watching a documentary play out on stage before our eyes. Rather, Ferrante/Groucho was so successful in his portrayal, that it seemed as if our reality was beginning to mesh with that of the past, as if we were living within the memories of the events. The show was broken up into about eight or nine different chapters of Groucho’s life, focusing on everything from how the Marx brothers became the Marx brothers, to Groucho’s multiple marriages. Each chapter was also coupled with such classic Groucho tunes as “Omaha, Nebraska” and “Hello, I Must be Going.” To say that we were falling out of our chairs laughing would be an understatement.
Many times throughout the show, I found myself wondering if Ferrante/Groucho was enjoying himself more than we were. For me, Ferrante/Groucho really shined in his interactions with the audience – he was merciless in his poking fun at everyone from the audience, to the ushers, to the light technician (“It’s a one-man show, why the hell isn’t the light on me?”), to even his own pianist. One of the better bits during the show was when he brought up the 17-year-old Kevin from the audience and, after a borderline interrogation (which mostly comprised of Groucho asking a question and Kevin repeating said question right back to him), transformed the high school junior into a mini Groucho. It would be hard to say whether watching Groucho and mini-Groucho run around the stage with cigars in their mouths induced the most laughter and applause of the night, but something tells me it was close.
When I say it felt as if we were living within the memory of Groucho Marx – his jokes, his pranks, his wisecracks and his relentless tutelage in the art of obscenity – I mean to say Frank Ferrante is a genius.
Ferrante developed his interpretation of ‘Groucho’ when he was a drama student at USC, where Arthur Marx discovered him and hired him to play the title role in ‘Groucho: A Life in Revue.’ Ferrante remained close to Marx, who died in 2011 at age 89, and to Groucho’s daughter, Miriam Marx Allen. Miriam Marx Allen is an ardent supporter of Ferrante’s work and attended Ferrante’s one-man-show at La Salle. She was in attendance at the performance at the Pasadena Playhouse on Saturday.
Ferrante estimates he has taken ‘An Evening with Groucho’ to more than 400 cities and sees no end in sight for the one-man show.
‘That’s because there’s no such thing as an old joke if you never heard it before,’ he said.
‘Humor and music are great antidotes,’ Ferrante said. ‘The older I get, the more I appreciate it.’ [PasadenaPlayhouse.org, Vicki Smith Paluch]
Cirque-A-Palooza is a first-time summer festival showcasing a collection of talented artists and a variety of shows, intermixed with visually breathtaking, comedic, or downright awe-inspiring Cirque-styled specialty acts.
Cirque-A-Palooza will be continuing through August 10th, with shows and events taking place at the Playhouse Mainstage and the Carrie Hamilton Theater. For more information on these shows and events visit http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org