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Ferrante's 'Groucho' is a fresh delight

From the moment the curtain rises in "Groucho: A Life in Revue," it's clear that Frank Ferrante is delivering something far richer than just an impersonation of a revered comic. The two-act play, divided into the early years and the later years, is filled with classic humor, songs, and more than the occasional fresh ad-lib.

"Groucho: A Life in Revue" traces the arc of the Marx brothers' careers from their humble touring beginnings through vaudeville and Broadway success, radio, and ultimately television. Ferrante directs and stars in the title role, embodying Groucho Marx with a delightful, even affectionate, flair.

Along with Groucho's rise to fame, the play touches on the complicated personal trials Groucho faced and how adversity often sparked elements of the Marx brothers' comedy. Some of that adversity stemmed from Groucho's relationship with his brothers and the continual conflict between their joint and solo careers. Richard Tatum plays two of Groucho's brothers, capturing Chico's notorious sex appeal and Harpo's silent, if sweet, mania.

Groucho didn't have much luck with the ladies, whether he was married to them or not. Amanda Rogers plays all those women (she's listed in the program as "The Girls"), but tends to coast absently through her portrayals. Late in the second act, Rogers plays a young reporter interviewing Groucho for a Playboy article. Her unnecessarily robotic line delivery nearly spoils the fun.

The set for "Groucho: A Life in Revue" is based on Michael Hotopp's original off-Broadway design and features a view of an elaborate backstage area, with walls adorned with props from floor to ceiling. One small section of the wall spins to reveal Groucho's dressing room, the place where Ferrante makes his dramatic -- and impressively transparent -- physical aging changes. With little more than slight makeup and costume changes to help him, Ferrante delicately transforms himself, decade by decade, until Groucho's final show fades to black.

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