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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Nov. 28, 2014

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The cast of Next Act Theatre's production of "Groucho."
The cast of Next Act Theatre's production of "Groucho." (Photo: Next Act Theatre)

You bet your life "Groucho" is a big winner

 It’s only when we get to the end of the play that the truth behind the comic genius of Groucho Marx finally gets revealed.

In response to a sappy question from an interviewer – "Groucho, have you ever known sadness?" – the aged Groucho, 86 years old with all his brothers dead, holds his breath for a moment before he replies.

"If I had never known sadness, I would not have spent a lifetime trying to make people laugh," he says.

It’s the crowning moment of the spectacular production of "Groucho: A Life in Revue" that opened at Next Act Theatre Friday night. And it’s the moment that starts the tears coming as Groucho remembers the good times with his brothers. The tears are a surprise after almost 90 minutes of hilarity.

But that progression in the play, co-written by Groucho’s son Arthur, is a spot-on historical panorama of the life of one of the truly original funny men in American theater and broadcast history.

Director Pam Kriger has skillfully guided a remarkably talented troupe through the production, finding the humor and the humanity in Groucho and his brothers. Life was not always a laugh for the Marx brothers, but they always looked for one, even in their bleakest moments.

Norman Moses pays Groucho, the fifth time he has played the comedian. And he has it down beyond pat. From the earliest moments when he narrates the early life of the brothers, to his transformation into the hair askew, cigar chomping champion of witty one-liners, to the startling and stunning turn to an old and physically feeble man who still retains his wit, Moses hits every nail on its head. At the end of the play, he jerks tears from you with his sudden love and humanity which hid behind his wit.

Groucho has been dead for 36 years, but even today his humor is hard to ignore. His program, "You Bet Your Life," had a 14-year run, and he was one of the pioneers of television. He was famous for the one-line insult with a slightly double entendre woven through the fabric.

In this production, Groucho never met a dollar or a woman he didn’t want. Whether he was serious about his constant flirtations or not was like many things in his life, shrouded in such comedy that nobody really knew what the truth was.

This play is about Groucho, but Moses is not alone on this stage as an ensemble of some of Milwaukee’s finest deliver performances that are as good as professional theater gets in Milwaukee.

David Cecsarini plays brother Chico, the gambling, hard charging seemingly slow witted brother who affects an Italian accent to either impress the ladies or to impress his brother. Cecsarini takes his second-fiddle character and gives him spirit, emotional depth and a willingness to both lead and follow his older brother.

Chris Klopatek proves he is an absolute master at physical comedy, playing the silent Harpo, complete with horn and obvious wit. He is part of what may well be the funniest moment in a very funny play.

At some point, it turns out that Harpo – whose real name was Adolph – got his name during a poker game when one of the players learned he played the harp.

And so, we are given a dance with Harpo and a stunning Alexandra Bonesho, complete with celestial music and harp strings strung from Bonesho’s arms to her ankles. The choreography of this dance is another amazing testament to the talent of the actors, who command the stage without a word being spoken, and Kriger, who is a dancer and choreographer by training. The two of them dancing while Harpo plucks the strings brought the house down opening night.

Bonesho continues to dazzle audiences as she is building an enviable reputation as an actor to keep an eye on, and if you think that’s a Groucho double entendre, go ahead and think that. She plays all the women in Groucho’s life with a wistful and willful delight.

Chase Stoeger plays the Citizen of Fredonia, a character charged with keeping up, cleaning up and feeling up around Groucho.  His clean cut all-American handsomeness is a great contrast to the over-the-top brows of Groucho. Stoeger provides a calm in the storm that is the Marx brothers.

Finally, there must be a word for Jack Forbes Wilson, who is the music director, an on-set piano player, announcer, etc. Wilson is an absolute marvel on stage and no matter what production he is part of, the production is much richer for his presence.

"Groucho: A Life in Review" runs through Dec. 8. Information can be obtained at nextact.org.

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