Tribute bands have boasted surprisingly large followings for years. Elvis, of course, is in a class of his own. But if you’re willing to fork over a few bucks and suspend your disbelief, you can catch ersatz versions of the Fab Four, KISS or even ABBA (Bjoern Again, a tribute outfit boasting that last mantle, packed the Orange Peel on Halloween night, at $25 a head).
Less well-known, but perhaps more interesting, are those who portray deceased celebrities. Persons such as Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson and Abraham Lincoln are the subjects of one-actor plays, and while it’s true that such performances can teach audiences a great deal about their subject, most people who turn out to see these shows never forget that the person on stage is an actor and not the real person after all.
An Evening With Groucho audiences may have a different experience. Described by USA Today as “eerily good,” actor Frank Ferrante has been portraying Groucho Marx professionally for almost 20 years.
“I put together a show called An Evening With Groucho for my senior [theater] project in 1985 at [the University of Southern California],” said Ferrante in a recent interview. Confident in his ability to bring Groucho to life, he invited Marx’s daughter and son, as well as former Marx Brothers screenwriter Morrie Ryskind, to the show.
All three accepted, and all three were impressed.
Afterward, Arthur Marx found Ferrante and told him, “If I ever do a show on my father, I would love to use you.” True to his word, Marx contacted Ferrante three months later and asked him to star in a play that showcased Groucho’s life from age 15 to 85. In 1987, Ferrante won a New York Theatre World Award for his performance in this show; he was also nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award.
The audience for the Asheville show — which will include the same content as performed in New York and London and on PBS — won’t get 70 years of Groucho, though. Instead, they’ll get “a young, energetic Groucho, the Groucho from [the movie] Duck Soup,” says Ferrante.
In this rapid-fire, two-act play, Ferrante serves up Groucho’s best one-liners, stories and songs, such as “Hooray for Captain Spalding” and “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.”
While Ferrante works from an established script, An Evening With Groucho also allows him “the freedom to ad-lib as Groucho did,” he says, making the play “different every single night.”
Ferrante has been performing as Groucho most of his adult life, but his fascination with the comedian goes back to childhood. “Really, it stems from seeing A Day at the Races when I was 9 years old,” he recalls. “I was exhilarated by Groucho’s behavior; he was outrageous, a bad boy.”
Ferrante recalls how he later would reenact Marx Brothers scenes with his own brother and read everything he could find in the local library about the famous siblings (but especially about Groucho). He has spent a lifetime researching the comedian — not merely mastering the master’s mannerisms, but also doing his best to figure out what made the man tick.
“Groucho was self-taught,” Ferrante notes. “He was a voracious reader who never made it past the sixth grade.”
Like many bright people denied a traditional education, Marx immersed himself in all sorts of subjects, from politics to horticulture to music to literature. “He subscribed to several newspapers and magazines,” the actor reveals. “[He] loved classical music, was a sports fan — he even corresponded with great writers such as T.S. Eliot.”
This lifetime of varied interests gave Marx a lot of material to work with, says Ferrante, noting how Marx’s worldview shaped his own comedy. “He saw the absurdity in life, and he had the guts to comment on it, “Ferrante continues. “He made fun of everything: doctors, lawyers and politicians; men and women; tradition; relationships; higher education; high society.
“In a way, his humor is dangerous because you don’t know what he’s going to do next.”
Groucho’s material “is still funny 75 years later,” Ferrante insists, “and he combined physical and verbal comedy better than anyone else.” This combination endears Groucho to disparate groups of people, and Ferrante says that popularity is constantly being renewed.
“I think every generation discovers Groucho,” the actor adds. “Children like him because he’s so outrageous, and teenagers like him because he’s irreverent.
“People can count on Groucho.”