Groucho Marx has inspired countless imitators. But when Frank Ferrante takes the stage in “An Evening with Groucho,” he brings something more than the big cigar, greasepaint moustache and the ever-present quips and wisecracks.
His fascination began in childhood.
“I was watching ‘A Day at the Races’ and it exhilarated me,” he said. “I laughed until I cried. I think the reason was that he was so irreverent. It was anarchy, freedom. I think that was what was so appealing to a shy 9-year-old kid. ... He would say anything to anyone. It was exciting.”
The show, which Ferrante wrote, features, in classic Groucho mode, stories of their early days in vaudeville and on Broadway; of his brothers; their classic movies; entertainment luminaries such as W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin; and Margaret Dumont, the wealthy, stuffy, long-suffering society matron in several Marx Brothers films who always loved Groucho’s character despite being the constant target of his gold-digging marriage proposals and wicked, irreverent verbal volleys.
Ferrante interacts with the audience extensively, calling on his background in improvisational theater and comedy.
He also includes some of Marx’s famous songs, including “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” from “Animal Crackers (1930) and “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” from “At the Circus“ (1939). Ferrante has done the show on PBS and on stage in London’s West End.
“Part of my mission is to garner the same laughs as if he was working live in 1934,” Ferrante said. “I try to make it close to what he would have come up with.” He said his coming Queens performances are a fitting tribute to the borough.
“The Marx Brothers’ first two films for Paramount, ‘The Cocoanuts’ and ‘Animal Crackers,’ were both filmed in their Astoria studios,” he said.
A California native, Ferrante would later meet his idol. Later, when studying acting at USC, he was discovered by Groucho’s son, Arthur, who cast him in 1986 as the great comic in his play “Groucho: A Life in Revue.” The role won Ferrante a 1987 New York Theatre World Award as Outstanding New Talent.
Marx died 37 years ago, but his movies, some more than 80 years old, are readily available on DVD. Ferrante said his audiences consist of all ages.
“I play big cities and small towns,”he said. “And I’m typically getting younger audiences. Recently in Seattle I had mostly college students.
“Their comedy holds up because it’s still fresh, in part because of their irreverence, in part because of their portrayals,” he said of the Marx Brothers. “It relates to all cultures, and to all ages. There’s something satisfying about a little guy taking on high society, and that’s what their characters did.”
Along with Groucho with his quips, puns and machine gun delivery, were Chico engaging in doubletalk in broken English with an Italian accent; and the silent Harpo with his harp, horn and a trench coat from which he could pull anything from the pockets from a blowtorch to a steaming cup of coffee with a saucer.
They would reduce a society cotillion, a New York Opera production of “Il Trovatore” or the Senate of the mythical country Freedonia to a state of manic mayhem.
“They wreaked havoc on society, big business and politics. I think it’s a thrill because they said things we all want to say at some level — and it was funny,” Ferrante said. He recalled his own days in school being educated by nuns.
“I think I wanted to treat the nuns the way Groucho treated Margaret Dumont,” he said.
Groucho, after the brothers stopped making movies, had a 15-year run on radio and television as host of the quiz show ‘You Bet Your Life,’ where all you had to do to win money was “say the secret woid.” With directing and other projects, Ferrante performs as Groucho three to four months per year. He remains close to Marx’s daughter, Miriam.