Groucho revisits Sheldon on Nov. 9
If you grew up watching Marx Brothers movies and the quiz show "You Bet Your Life" on television, you have an idea what kind of craziness to expect when Frank Ferrante brings "An Evening with Groucho" to the Sheldon Theatre for two shows on Nov. 9.
But Ferrante has discovered that even young people who have never heard of Groucho Marx make great audiences for his interactive performance.
For them, it's an opportunity to discover a rule-breaking, wildly funny man whose legacy is very much alive — thanks in large part to Ferrante.
He has performed the role of Groucho thousands of times, winning major awards and accolades. The New York Times called him "the greatest living interpreter of Groucho Marx's material."
Ferrante became a Marx Brothers fan when he was just a 10-year-old watching an old movie. He first brought Groucho to life on stage for a senior project in 1985, when he was studying theater at the University of Southern California. He invited Groucho's son, Arthur, to see the show.
"He liked it so much," Ferrante said, that within a year Ferrante was starring in an off-Broadway show, "Groucho: A Life in Revue," written by Arthur Marx.
Ferrante's portrayal of the comedian from age 15 to 85 won New York's Theatre World Award in 1987, and the honors continued when he reprised the role in London. Later it was filmed for PBS.
"That was my entrée to professional theater," Ferrante said. "It led to a lot of work over the years."
Beyond that success, he added, "It's lovely to be associated with a role like that, (to play) such a historic figure who has given people so much joy over the years."
Ferrante created "An Evening with Groucho" based on a simple premise: "What would it be like to see Groucho Marx in his prime in a one-man show?"
He chose that format even though Groucho did not do one-man shows because it gave him the opportunity to include some famous routines from the movies he made with his brothers (Chico, Harpo, Gummo and Zeppo), and also to resurrect memorable people from his life such as Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields and Greta Garbo.
The two-act show is part musical, part stage play, part standup comedy. And a good chunk of it is entirely off-script.
"I improvise about one-third of the show," Ferrante explained. And he relies on pianist Alex Rybeck as "my straight man."
After more than 30 years portraying Groucho, he still considers the show "a work in progress. The show has gotten more interactive. ... I couldn't do the same show every night. Every show is different."
Working with director Dreya Weber, he said, "I keep evolving the show. We keep cutting and adding material" that reflects Groucho's spirit and his interests.
The third of five sons, Groucho was born in 1890 and was largely self-taught. He loved T.S. Eliot, operetta and classical music, Ferrante pointed out. "I show that side of Groucho."
A director and producer as well as an actor, Ferrante continues to appear as Groucho on a regular basis, but it's not his only role. He also plays the comic lead in "Teatro Zinzanni," which will start a six-month run in Chicago next spring, and he recently finished a run in "A Comedy of Tenors" in Philadelphia.
Ferrante looks forward to a return visit to Red Wing. He brought Groucho to the Sheldon about 10 years ago and has vivid memories of downtown and the theater.
"I've played over 500 cities round the world. Red Wing stands out. It's a charming and magnificent venue," he said.
"An Evening with Groucho" will be performed at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9. Tickets are $28-$33. Visit the box office, call 651-388-8700 or go online to www.sheldontheatre.org.