Groucho Marx Arrives in Mount Adams

Starting this week at the Playhouse in the Park, Frank Ferrante portrays the zany, wisecracking Marx brother.

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click to enlarge Frank Ferrante has spent decades portraying the iconic Groucho Marx. - PHOTO: Courtesy of Frank Ferrante Productions
PHOTO: Courtesy of Frank Ferrante Productions
Frank Ferrante has spent decades portraying the iconic Groucho Marx.

Groucho Marx once quipped, “Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.” At the tender age of 9, actor Frank Ferrante was inspired by the light of Marx’s humor. “I was raised in a fairly repressed household,” he says, “a Catholic-Italian family. We played by the rules. To experience a Marx Brothers film as a boy was life-shifting, seeing this kind of rule-breaking approach to existence. I couldn’t articulate it when I was watching these films on television.”

The Marx Brothers’ inspired comedy act, mixing antic slapstick with clever witticisms and puns (a Groucho specialty), made them stars of the stage and films like Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera and Monkey Business. Groucho then went on to radio and television fame as the host of a comic game show called You Bet Your Life. He died in 1977 at age 86.

Now, after several decades of impersonating Groucho, Ferrante can identify the key elements of his comedy. “I love his irreverence, I love that he calls it like he sees it, I love the complexity of his persona,” he says. “It’s not just his rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and that look we’ve all come to know. There’s a great deal of nuance. He surprises you. He surprises me! You don’t know what he’s going to say. When I’m asked what is at the core of his appeal and why, I say he still exhilarates me.”

Ferrante is now 54, but he first took a dive into the role while he was an undergraduate studying theater at the University of Southern California in the early 1980s. His directing mentor suggested he find a script and perform as Groucho. Ferrante met Elaine Stritch, the veteran actress and singer, following an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and she gave him the text for a one-man show, An Elephant in My Pajamas, that her husband John Bay had performed. Ferrante did it at USC.

“That’s how it started,” he says. “I figured I had to do something with my life and I knew I had a great passion for humor — specifically for the humor of the Marx Brothers. I was looking for a way to express myself and to be part of a tradition.” 

Ferrante’s fascination with Groucho has kept him engaged in numerous projects for more than three decades. 

“I’ve been able to release that part of me that wants to be free and not always play by the rules,” he says.

Although Ferrante’s career has encompassed other acting and directing, his bread-and-butter has been that of “the greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx’s material,” as The New York Times described him. After his performance at USC, Groucho’s son Arthur recruited him to star in an off-Broadway production of Groucho: A Life in Revue. (Arthur wrote the script.) That long-running show, in which Ferrante played the iconic humorist and television host from age 15 to 85, gained national recognition when it aired on PBS stations in 2001.

This week Ferrante keeps the ball rolling with his own show, one he’s been perfecting for more than a decade: An Evening with Groucho, onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. (It’s scheduled to be on the Shelterhouse stage through mid-December although, based on past Playhouse holiday shows, it could be extended.) 

His Cincinnati appearance is an opportunity to refine the show that he’s performed in 500 cities, playing the role of Groucho more than 2,500 times. “There’s going to be a production element we’ve never had before, a visual component that’s all new,” he says. “I’ll be doing new stories and it’s going to be restaged.” 

He’s pleased by the Playhouse’s enthusiastic support for his production.

Ferrante first comes onstage as himself. “I rhapsodize about my childhood interest and passion for Groucho and then cannonball into him,” he says. “It’s an experience as if someone had seen him live in 1934. He seldom performed alone during that time — he was always with his brothers. But if he’d been asked to do a one-man show, it would be like this.” 

Ferrante uses songs and material from Groucho’s Broadway and film career, focusing on the 1920s and 1930s vaudeville era. “I take on his brothers, his relationship with Margaret Dumont, Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields. You get a sense of his style, his brash quality,” he says. 

Ferrante also mentions his director, Dreya Weber, who has worked with him for several years. “She’s brought a different tone to the piece as we continue to evolve it,” he says. “She was adamant about giving it another quality to express Groucho’s interests.” 

For instance, he was a voracious reader. Ferrante has added stories about his correspondence with poet T.S. Eliot and his love of music by the operetta team of Gilbert and Sullivan. 

Ferrante’s performance includes an array of Groucho’s zany songs — the likes of “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” and “Hello, I Must Be Going” — performed with newly added pianist Gerald Sternbach. 

The Shelterhouse stage’s intimate setting — seating 225 in rows around the stage on three sides — gives Ferrante a perfect opportunity to do what Groucho excelled at: off-the-cuff, quick-witted banter with audiences and guests. 

“That’s the highlight of the piece, the interactive quality of the improv, the ad-libbing,” Ferrante says. “Almost every comic actor who does a show like this has a file, but my goal is always to invent new interactions with every performance, since the audience is different every time. It allows for returns from those who’ve experienced the show at some point because they know it’s not going to be the same. Every show is different.”

It’s clear that he relishes the opportunity to portray Groucho. “I love performing,” he says in an interview in the Playhouse program. “I love acting. I’m a man of the theater. And every show is different.”

Marx once said, “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.” It’s readily apparent that Ferrante will be having fun. 

AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, formally opens Thursday (it is already in previews) and continues through Dec. 17. Tickets/more info: cincyplay.com.

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