San Diego Theater Review: ANIMAL CRACKERS (Cygnet Theatre Company)

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by Milo Shapiro on July 12, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


One can easily see why Animal Crackers was a Broadway hit from 1928-1929, followed by a successful movie version. Start with the zany Marx Brothers, add a variety of vaudeville style acts, connect it all with a wacky little plot and it has “Roaring Twenties” written all over it. But does it still have the 2020s written all over it? Somewhat, but the nostalgic tone sells the humor more than the words themselves.

George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s book is charming. The wealthy Mrs. Rittenhouse (Melinda Gilb) is hosting a social event where the guest of honor is the famed African explorer Captain Spaulding (Josh Odsess-Rubin). Upon his arrival, the socialites discover unexpectedly that Spaulding is something of an impulsive loon, but no one wants to offend him. In the midst of the awkward party, a famous piece of art disappears and a playfully chaotic attempt to solve the mystery begins.

There are so many talented acts presented (magic, clownery, tap dance, and more) that many scenes feel designed purely to set up these displays. Indeed, in its time, the plot served more as a vehicle for vaudevillian acts, so this worked well. The problem is that, today, we’ve seen it all. While the tap dance number, for instance, was pleasant and well-executed, it’s hard to be wowed if you’ve watched an episode or two of So You Think You Can Dance. The jokes have us smiling, but not truly laughing because they feel corny. Likewise, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s music and lyrics are enjoyable, but not dazzling.

What does work in this production is the performances. Odsess-Rubin’s ode to Groucho rings true. It’s easy to get past the notion of a woman in Harpo Marx’s role, as Samantha Greenstone’s bold joyfulness is delightful and yields some of the best laughs for physical humor, which there is much of in this broad comedy. Russell Garrett, in a smaller role as Hives the butler, drew numerous  chortles for his droll distaste for his employers and guests. Garrett serves double duty here as choreographer, giving us enjoyable routines, especially in the classic “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” All of the numbers are good; they just don’t cross over to “”Wow!”–in part because the humor feels dated.

Family-friendly and good-hearted, Animal Crackers is a tasty and sweet snack with a few good laughs here and there, even though it probably yielded more 90 years ago.

photos by Daren Scott

Animal Crackers
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8;
Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on August 13, 2017
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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