Wednesday, December 19, 2012


If a person had never seen a Marx Brother movie before, it's hard to imagine what she might think of A Night At The Nutcracker, Cabrillo Stage's merrily Marxist new holiday musical. But for the initiated, those of us who revel in the gleeful anarchy perpetrated by Groucho, Chico, and Harpo in a series of classic movie comedies in the 1930s and '40s, this new Nutcracker is a welcome holiday treat.

Scripted by Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore, with original music by Ed Alton, the play (this production is its West Coast premiere) is an entertaining pastiche of one-liners, sight-gags and silliness that follows the plotline of a typical Marx Bros movie: three goofballs are turned loose in some sector of normal society—in this case, a staging of the holiday ballet, The Nutcracker. Mayhem ensues.

Company stalwart Max Bennett-Parker makes with the Italianate jokes and even plays piano as Chico surrogate, Pepponi; Matt Dunn is sweetly nutty as the scene-stealing Harpo character, Pinchie, the silent clown with his arsenal of horns. Both are somehow installed in the household of the Margaret Dumont character, frosty society dame Mrs. Stuffington (a formidable Lizz Hodgin), who is funding a holiday production of The Nutcracker ballet starring egotistical Russian dancer Rasputin (a funny Kevin Johnston).

There are young lovers (David Jackson and the ever-winsome Ariel Buck) singing schmaltzy love ballads, a con-man called Ratchette (well-played by Adam J. Saucedo) angling for Mrs. S's fortune, and his blonde, sexpot accomplice (a spirited Eleanor Hunter).

Best of all, there's Nicholas Ceglio as Groucho surrogate Felix T. Filibuster, private eye. Ceglio has Groucho's eyebrow-wiggling, cigar-flicking, hip-swiveling mannerisms down to the proverbial T, and he's great fun wisecracking his way through a Groucho-like repertoire of one-liners. ("These steps were given to me by Nijinsky—and, boy, was he glad to get rid of 'em!")

If the production lacks a little of the zing and snap of the original Marxes, it's not surprising; after all, they had decades together on the vaudeville circuit and Broadway perfecting their routines before they ever even made their first film.  The cool thing is how well Andrew Ceglio's production (he directed and choreographed) stays true to the irreverent spirit of the Marx Brothers.

Inspired too are the snippets of the ballet itself we see at the end of the second act, when all the elements come together. Performed by the characters in the story (after the professional dancers have walked out), Ceglio and company offer some very funny takes on the familiar music we all know—from the hilarious dancing of Dunn's Pinchie (on his knees, arms in pant legs) in the overture, to the staging of the Russian Dance as a duel between Groucho and Ratchette, each crescendo of the music accompanying a punch or kick.

The only drawback to the ballet finale is we don't get to hear any more of Groucho's jokes Otherwise, it's an upbeat finish to a refreshingly non-traditional holiday show.

(A Night At The Nutcaracker plays through Dec. 30. Click here for tickets and info.)

Btw, here are the real Marx Bros in action in Duck Soup (1933), possibly the funniest movie ever made, and probably in my Top 5 films of all time!

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