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'Groucho' captures comic's charms

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By John Horan Jr.-jhoran@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- "Here he is, the one, the only ..." announcer George Fenneman would say at the top of each "You Bet Your Life" show, and the audience would promptly scream, "Groucho!"

The aptness of that exchange is borne out in "Groucho: A Life in Revue," his son's warm and hilarious tribute, which opened at Wayside Theatre on Sunday.

For there was only one Groucho Marx, a comic genius who starred in vaudeville, movies, radio and TV. He and his brothers, Chico and Harpo, created comic anarchy in 13 movies, many of them classics, and Groucho later had a successful solo career that showcased his rapier wit and talent for ad libs. Though dead for 33 years, he has delighted new generations who happen upon his movies on cable.

The show, which his son, Arthur, wrote with Robert Fisher, has Groucho traversing his career from the brothers' early days to a farewell concert at Carnegie Hall. His reminiscences are interspersed with bits of the brothers' trademark zaniness and several of the antic songs Groucho made his own.

Directed by Warner Crocker, the show, is fast paced and captures Groucho's unique charms, although it lags a bit as he enters his dotage.

After a somewhat tentative start, Peter Boyer settles into the Groucho persona. Though his voice lacks Groucho's distinctive timbre, he has mastered his mannerisms -- the flitting eyebrows, the loping stride -- and his quick-witted spirit. If Boyer seems hesitant as the youthful Groucho with a painted mustache and black fright wig, he hits his stride reliving the Hollywood years, cavorting, for instance, as Captain Spalding in "Animal Crackers." He ages convincingly into the sly, gray-haired character whose quips made "You Bet Your Life" such a hoot and, finally, into the frail Groucho, in turtleneck and beret, for his swan song.

Boyer's colorful exertions are matched by Vaughn Irving, who plays both Chico and Harpo. While that might seem an impossible task, Irving manages both easily. His Chico exudes the seemingly slow-witted wiliness of the original, as well as his distinctive index-fingered piano stylings. His Harpo is a riot of frenetic activity.

The women in the cast play along gamely and sing well, but this "Groucho" is mostly a guys' show. Thomasin Savaiano tries to evoke Margaret Dumont, Groucho's favorite movie foil, but their exchanges lack verve. Katherine Yacko plays reporters in different eras, a stilted device designed to puncture Groucho's grouchy veneer.

Heather Reid's spacious, spare set includes insets where various photos of Groucho and his brothers appear at opportune times.

Tamara M. Carruthers supplies the handsome period costumes, Wes Calkin the efficient lighting. Steve Przybylski is the able accompanist.

"Groucho: A Life in Revue" continues through April 23. The box office phone number is 869-1776.

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