The late 1920’s musical, Animal Crackers, running until July 13 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is a puzzlement. A triple-threat ensemble is giving its all in aid of a museum piece that would have been better preserved in an enclosed vault rather than exposed to the air of any theatre, let alone the sparkling splendor of the Williamstown mainstage. Whatever the production cost in its design elements and production values would certainly have been better invested in a project deserving of these resources. And the same must be said for the fine company of actors who deserve far, far more than this foolish script and threadbare score offer them.
When the Marx Brothers premiered this musical revue in 1928, they were already major names on Broadway, and their brand of raucous humour, political satire and spontaneous ad-libbing with each other and the audiences they played to, defined their personalities and their manic style. They were also well-seasoned veterans of the burlesque and vaudeville traditions that formed them and this kind of entertainment.
But that was then.
Many of today’s best stand-up comics rely on the ad-lib to engage with audiences, both live and televised, but the brand of humour has changed with the passing of so many years. What may have tickled audiences more than eighty years ago is now, at best, tepid. The objects of humour that populate this particular script are much more than musty, and the actors’ hectoring of the audience about the dated quality of the material, while passing funny, only underlines the utter silliness of the endeavour.
What prompts this kind of programming can’t be timidity, since this season includes a new musical (“The Bridges of Madison County”), as did last season (“Far from Heaven”). And there is ample proof that new plays are also welcomed alongside classics. So, is it nothing more than a misstep? Is it an attempt to resurrect a forgotten ‘gem’? Or, is the programming challenge of giving folks what they want (or what the programmers think they want) compromising the quality and standards that the festival strives to achieve. The marketing of Williamstown weighs its past very heavily and deservedly so. It’s to be hoped that the current and future seasons can uphold this legacy.
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