It will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Frank Ferrante at Teatro ZinZanni that this is a man who knows how to ad-lib. The wisecracking Ferrante has starred in several ZinZanni productions, most recently in “Hail Caesar!” but he has a whole other career — playing the legendary comedian Groucho Marx.
Despite his local following and the enormous success of the Groucho show, which Ferrante has performed in more than 400 cities across the U.S. and Canada, Ferrante has never played it in Seattle. But that’s about to change as ACT Theatre presents the production in a three-week run from May 3-20. For Ferrante, whose typical Groucho gig is one or two performances per city, this is a chance to settle in with local audiences and he’s clearly excited at the prospect.
Ferrante comes by his impression — he doesn’t like the word “impersonation” — of Groucho honestly. Ferrante saw his first Marx Brothers movie, “A Day at the Races,” when he was 9 and was immediately captivated by Groucho in particular and by all the Marx brothers in general. Immediately afterward, Ferrante went to his local library and started reading all about the Marx brothers and other vaudeville stars of their era.
He had a chance to see Groucho in person just once, as the great man was nearing the end of his life. When Ferrante was 13, his father took him to a performance Groucho was doing for a book promotion and although Groucho looked, in Ferrante’s words “like he was almost ready to expire,” Marx’s quick wit was on full display. To a woman who wanted to know, “What do you dream of?” Groucho responded without skipping a beat, “Not you.”
By the time he was a theater major at USC, Ferrante was completely hooked on Groucho’s unique blend of wit, physical comedy and improv. When it came time to create a student project, Ferrante developed his first iteration of the Groucho show. He invited Marx’s son Arthur to a performance and when Arthur Marx decided to write a show about his father’s life a few years later, he asked Ferrante, then 23, to star in it. When “Groucho: A Life in Revue” opened in New York in 1985, it was a surprise hit and went on to an equally successful run in London, paving the way for Ferrante’s lifelong commitment to keeping Groucho’s jokes, songs and spirit alive.
“Groucho is my alter ego,” explains Ferrante. “There’s so much in life we don’t say but Groucho cut through that. He had license to say ‘the emperor has no clothes’ and an outsider’s humor like the guy who crashes the party but refuses to be put down by the lack of inclusion.”
But Groucho’s appeal for Ferrante is far greater than his ability to take on the establishment and get away with it.
“Groucho could do it all. He could read the dictionary and make you laugh, he could go from falsetto to bass, he was athletic and he was fearless.”
Although Ferrante is not Jewish, he honed his gift for shtick not just by watching Groucho but also from some of the greatest Jewish-American comedians, like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar, at New York’s Friars Club. Over the years, Ferrante has taken Berle’s advice to “do everything and learn from everything you do” to heart and though he has played Groucho for more than 25 years, he continues to fine-tune his performance. “Each time before I go on, I say ‘Frank, your job is to exhilarate the audience and share the playfulness of the Marx brothers.’”
Given the improvisational nature of “An Evening with Groucho,” Ferrante has a chance to continually hone his comedic skills. The performance, which Ferrante describes as “what Groucho himself would have done in 1934 if he had worked without his brothers,” is tightly structured to include material from Groucho’s films and shows but also includes “pockets” to allow for improv bits. As he does at ZinZanni, Ferrante wanders through the audience, stopping for a few wacky one-liners, or calling an unsuspecting soul up on stage for what invariably turns out to be a hilarious interchange.
Most of all, Ferrante says he tries to “conjure up the spirit of Groucho and emphasize his performing style” in a format he describes as part stand-up, part musical, part acting and part free-flowing improv. Whatever the label, “An Evening with Groucho” is a chance to appreciate Groucho’s genius and the contemporary actor who is his heir in spirit, intellect, and irreverence.