Cabrillo Stage shakes up the season with a Marx Brothers-inspired holiday hootenanny
Breaking with traditional Christmas sentimentality, the musical farce “A Night at the Nutcracker,” takes its inspiration from classic Marx Brothers’ comedies, and imagines what might happen if, behind the scenes of “The Nutcracker Ballet,” a villainous thief plotted to make off with the money for the show, and the Marx Brothers—Groucho, Chico and Harpo—arrived to save the day.
This zany, madcap play by Broadway-acclaimed playwrights Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore, is the latest undertaking of Cabrillo Stage, and will run Dec. 14-30 at Cabrillo College. The production marks the West Coast premier of the show.
Written in 2002, the play borrows some of the most hilarious elements of Marx Brothers’ films, such as Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera and A Night in Casablanca.
The aim of the play, according to Van Zandt, was to create a Christmas show, but in a less traditional sense—a little more fun and off the wall than “A Christmas Carol.”
“What you’re basically seeing is the movie the Marx Brothers never made in 1933,” Van Zandt says.
The story of “A Night at the Nutcracker” begins with the wealthy Constance Stuffington—whose character is based on Margaret Dumont, an actress who starred in many Marx Brothers’ films—and her production of “The Nutcracker Ballet” in New York. Stuffington is engaged to a con man who is helping her manage her finances but secretly aims to make off with all her money.
Enter Felix Filibuster, the world’s greatest detective, ready to save the day.
“He’s the Groucho Marx character, coming in to solve the mystery,” explains director Andrew Ceglio. Filibuster is accompanied by Stuffington’s butlers, who are based on Chico and Harpo Marx.
The play employs some of the most famous musical elements of “The Nutcracker Ballet.”
“We have these iconic music pieces from Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker,’ but in this storyline, everything is falling to pieces as they’re trying to save the ballet,” Ceglio says.
By Act II, Stuffington’s bag of money is caught up in the madness of “The Nutcracker Ballet,” and hilarity ensues.
“You’ve got a combination of major slapstick, great wordplay, great music, and a love story all at the same time,” Van Zandt says. “They’re trying to get her money back at the same time the bad guy is trying to get the bag so he can get out of town, all while the production is going on.”
Ceglio, for a seasoned Cabrillo Stage veteran, says his style of directing is a great match for this play. He emphasizes the importance of slapstick comedy, gags and digging into the zany characters—all of which were fundamental to Marx Brothers’ films. “This was kind of a perfect fit,” he says. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to do a show like this.”
Ceglio says the biggest challenge has been taking the Marx Brothers’ film style and translating it to the stage.
In the original production of “A Night at the Nutcracker,” in which Van Zandt played the role of detective Filibuster, the crew designed the entire show—from the set to the costumes—in varying shades of black, white and grey to maintain the 1930s film era look, Van Zandt says.
The Cabrillo Stage production will be in color, but Ceglio doesn’t think anything will be lost.
The real trick, he says, is in the actors’ performance.
“Marx Brothers’ films walk a fine line between over the top and subtleties, so I think the biggest challenge is making sure that we capture those subtleties with these characters,” Ceglio says.
“There’s comedy just across the board,” he goes on. “What I’m really hoping is that people are whisked away from the stress of the world for a couple of hours and lose themselves in the comedy.”
“A Night at the Nutcracker” runs Dec. 14-30 at Cabrillo College’s Crocker Theater, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. Tickets are $20-40. For tickets, visit cabrillostage.com, or call 479-6154. Photos: Jana Marcus