Neil Cole's play about Groucho Marx strikes out for a path between life history and nostalgia. Despite a few wobbles, it largely succeeds.
Groucho combines songs, setpieces and snippets from the great comic's life to tell a story that reminds us of another time. It's lively and well-conceived, but the execution and pacing are at times a little flawed.
Naturally, much hinges on Dennis Manahan's performance as Groucho. Recreating well-known people is always a challenge, and it takes a few minutes for us to accept this man as who he purports to be. But every now and then Manahan pulls out the signature facial expressions, the physical tics and the vocal style and suddenly Groucho comes to life. The greasepaint moustache and eyebrows don't hurt either.
Perhaps the more notable performance is co-star Carla Kissane, who plays everyone else – Chico, Harpo, Groucho's mother, daughter, Irving Thalberg, Dorothy Parker, Margaret Dumont, even Charlie Chaplin. The costume changes are worked into the script and the set, but I think even without costume we'd know who Kissane was playing at any given moment. Her support gives the show much of its energy.
When it's going well, Groucho takes us through an astounding yet tragic history filled with larger-than-life characters, as if through an extended song-and-dance dream sequence. Unfortunately, sometimes you can see the joins in the production and the spell is broken. The second act in particular drags in comparison to the first, not so much because it tells the story of Groucho's later life but because the energy has subsided during intermission and there's nothing to bring it back. The show could probably benefit from being condensed to a single act.
But Groucho does succeed in transporting us to another time. It's questionable whether the show would appeal to an audience unfamiliar with the Marx Brothers, or whether it's intended to, but for those of us who are fans, the show allows us a trip into the past that offers more than just nostalgia. Next time I watch those films (and Groucho has made me want to do just that) I will see them differently, knowing a little more about how they were made and the lives of those who made them.
But the show is structured ultimately not around the Marx Brothers films, but around Groucho himself and especially his later gameshow 'You Bet Your Life'. Groucho wants to show us that betting his life is exactly what Groucho the man did. The bet was made for him in the beginning, but he raised the stakes and came out a winner. A show like Groucho has a lot of risks, but despite its flaws, it too is a gamble that pays off.
Melbourne Jewish Theatre Trust presents
by Neil Cole
Directed by Don Bridges
Venue: Chapel off Chapel, Prahran
Dates: 15 – 26 August, 2012
Times: Tues-Sun 8pm, Sat & Sun matinee 1pm
Tickets: Full $35, Conc. $32, Group 10+ $30, Family of 4 $120 (+Transaction Fee)