MILWAUKEE – The sons of Jewish immigrants from Germany and France, the Marx Brothers became zany masters of stage and screen in the first half of the last century.
Now, about 100 years later, a renowned live interpreter of the Marx phenomenon is to visit Milwaukee.
“An Evening with Groucho” starring Frank Ferrante as Groucho Marx opens March 24 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stackner Cabaret venue.
An award-winning actor, director and playwright, Ferrante recreates his New York and London-acclaimed portrayal of Groucho Marx in “90 minutes of fast-paced hilarity,” according to a news release. The two-act comedy consists of the best Groucho one-liners, anecdotes, and songs, including “Hooray for Captain Spalding” and “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.”
The Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo – performed in film and on Broadway. Today their work is often referenced in entertainment circles and is still viewed as pioneering.
The Marx Brothers’ staying power stems from the “unspoken, spiritual connection and intimate rapport that comes with their brotherhood,” among other factors, Ferrante told JNS.org, the Jewish News Service, in 2013.
The Marx Brothers’ continued popularity comes from “the fact that they represent the outsider and take perverse joy in tearing down the establishment and anyone who has power and authority — the wealthy, politicians, lawyers, doctors, professors. They are simply hysterical and can elicit belly laughs from all ages, classes, genders, race,” Ferrante said.
Ferrante said Groucho was intensely loyal to his friends, many of whom were writers.
“He maintained these friendships for decades,” Ferrante said. “He was also an avid proponent of young talent and made a public point of heralding newcomers, struggling artists and writers. Jack Lemmon, Woody Allen, Steve Allen, Dick Cavett, Neil Simon and countless others benefited from his influence.”
Why did Groucho become the verbal expert and Harpo the silent clown?
“Groucho was on the defensive early on and evolved masterfully into the king of the offensive — brash, fast-talking, pun-laden, with a musical delivery,” Ferrante explained. “He used his mind, and his tongue was often a weapon. I believe he was sensitive and easily hurt and felt marginalized early on. It was made quite clear to him that he was not his mother’s favorite. He used words and humor to fend off the slings and arrows of life while slinging his own.”
Groucho was introverted as a youth and did not make it past the 6th grade, which was a source of shame, Ferrante said. But Groucho went on to educate himself by reading voraciously from the great novelists of his time, turning his shame to pride.
“He read multiple news periodicals and was up on current events,” Ferrante said. “He kept a dictionary in his car. Later in life he became a regular correspondent with T.S. Elliot, a pride point for Groucho.”
In 1964, Groucho visited a European village where his mother had been born, discovering that all the Jewish graves there had been destroyed by the Nazis, according to the Telegraph. Groucho is said to have then sought out the spot where Hitler committed suicide, to dance on his grave, in a sense. There was reportedly no laughter among those present.
Deemed the “greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx’s material” by The New York Times, Ferrante now brings his acclaimed production as seen on PBS and in New York to Milwaukee, according to a news release.
Accompanied by his onstage pianist, Ferrante portrays the young Groucho of stage and film and reacquaints us with the brothers, plus Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Margaret Dumont and MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. The show has been called “nothing short of masterful” by the Chicago Tribune.
Tickets can be purchased online at MilwaukeeRep.com, by phone at 414-224-9490 or in person at the ticket office, 108 E. Wells St.
How to go
What: “An Evening with Groucho”
When: March 24 – May 28, 2017
Where: Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Stackner Cabaret, 108 E. Wells St.
Tickets: MilwaukeeRep.com, at 414-224-9490 or at the theater ticket office. $20 select seating for students and patrons 35 and under.
Disabled: Audio-described performance Sunday, April 2, 7 p.m.