By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Mar 27, 2017 at 12:03 PM

Groucho Marx was generally considered one of the funniest American comedians of all time, and he built a career on the quick quip, the momentary reactions to a situation or person that he turned into humor.

Groucho and his brothers were silly clowns full of slapstick comedy, funny faces and costumes, and outrageous plot lines in their Broadway shows and movies, and he was a master of banter on his television show "You Bet Your Life."

The production of "Groucho," which opened Sunday night at the Stackner Cabaret at The Rep, is kind of like real life. On the stage, Frank Ferrante, the actor who created the show, is silly and slapstick. When he moves into the audience to banter with people sitting at the tables, he becomes a master of funny stuff.

It will be interesting to see how this production does at the box office, especially following the blockbuster of "McGuire" that was so popular that it’s coming back this summer.

The pedigree for "Groucho" is impressive. Ferrante has done the show over 3,000 times in more than 500 cities around the world. He and his pianist compadre, Gerald Sternbach, have this show down cold. Every move, every joke, every song and every bit of banter have obviously been performed over and over and over.

It’s obvious that Ferrante has a deep love of Groucho. His respect and affection drape themselves over everything he does. But there are really two distinct parts of this show, one very funny and one seemingly overdone, dated and marginally funny at best.

Let’s take the funny stuff first.

Ferrante moves easily to the audience, picking out a woman here, a man there, a couple here and there. Like Groucho’s famous television show, he asks them questions and then twists and turns answers drawing hearty chuckles from the rest of the audience as well as the citizens who have become the subject of his attention.

If you listen closely, it’s apparent that his ad libs are most likely not ad libbed at all but rather jokes that have been created so that they can be tailored to any audience in any town at all. But that doesn’t detract from the humor.

Picking on Sue and Barry, who have been married for 49 years, or ogling a young woman with a plunging decolletage are time honored laugh getters, and Ferrante makes the most of them.  Ferrante uses the same tricks so many comedians use: throwing in some local references (Sheboygan, Kenosha and Cudahy), poking fun at the city where he's playing ("Hey, it's Sunday night in Milwaukee") and begging for laughs ("That's okay, I'll wait for you").

The issue of what happens on the stage is a different picture.

The first movie Groucho made was in 1921. His television show went off the air in 1961. He was 86 when he died in 1977. While his skills at witty repartee may translate to 2017, the jokes and one-liners of his heyday seem a bit dated, and not all that funny.

Ferrante delivers an evocative performance, obviously comfortable with the persona as he looks, acts and sounds like the Groucho of our memories. But the appeal of this kind of humor may well have past its expiration date.

Wordplay, silly rhymes and physical contortions were once a standard for all comedy, but in this day and age, they don’t carry the kind of weight that great comedy should carry.

Perhaps it is the very longevity of Ferrante’s play that is at fault here. The strength of Groucho Marx was his spontaneity. Give him a word, a situation or a foil, and he drew humor from the targets. Ferrante’s play is absent that spur of the moment sense of humor. It all seems just a little bit too pat, as if he has done the show too many times. 

I will confess that my impression of this show may well be influenced by the Al McGuire show which closed several weeks ago, a show that was a huge box office hit.

They are both one-man shows about icons in their field. But "McGuire" had Anthony Crivello, a world class actor, and a performance that was full of humor and wisdom and joys and sorrows. "Groucho" has a character actor who doesn’t give the audience the very thing that made Groucho Marx great – a sense of "I just thought of this" – and doesn’t shed any light on the complexities of the life of this revered comedian.

"Groucho" runs through May 28 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.