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Harassment outdoes humor in 'Groucho'

'An Evening With Groucho'

RATING: **½

WHERE: Foster Theater, Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto

WHEN: 2 p.m. today

RUNNING TIME: 1 hour and 55 minutes, including an intermission

TICKETS: $18-$40

CALL: 338-2100

With few exceptions, comedy is like milk and fruit -- it doesn't age well.

People were in hysterics over Groucho Marx's double-entendres, puns and faux ballet moves more than a half-century ago, but his antics just aren't as funny today.

That's why the laughter was half-hearted at best at Frank Ferrante's "An Evening with Groucho" on opening night Friday of his three-performance run at the Gallo Center for the Arts.

Still, there was pleasure to be had in watching Ferrante so skillfully impersonate the comedy legend. Sporting greasepaint eyebrows and mustache and carrying a cigar, he has played Groucho for more than 20 years, including off-Broadway, in London and on PBS. National Public Radio picked his portrayal of Marx as one of the country's top five solo shows.

Born in 1890, Marx became famous singing with his brothers Harpo, Chico, Gummo and Zeppo in a vaudeville act. In the 1930s and '40s, he and his brothers made a string of hit movies, including "Duck Soup," "A Night at the Opera," "A Day at the Races" and "Monkey Business."

From 1947 to 1961, Groucho hosted the quiz show "You Bet Your Life." He later appeared on TV talk shows and died at age 86 in 1977.

Appearing with the excellent pianist Jim Furmston on a simple living room set, Ferrante performs some of Groucho's most famous songs ("Lydia the Tattooed Lady," "Hello, I Must Be Going") and comic bits. He also tells stories about Groucho's interactions with the stars of his era, including Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields.

Ferrante has a wonderful voice and is comfortable with Groucho's physical comedy antics, like his mischievous raised eyebrows, goofy curtseys and wide-legged walk.

But he picks on audience members way too much, which makes seeing his show a stressful experience. Every few minutes, the house lights go on and he tortures some hapless soul sitting next to the aisle.

Some of it Friday was harmless, as when he flirted with women, ordered coffee for a sleepy audience member and put greasepaint on a 13-year-old boy to make him look like Groucho. But some of it bordered on mean, as when he blasted a senior citizen's ears by yelling into his hearing aid.

Ferrante was relentless in hounding the audience about not laughing enough at his jokes or paying close enough attention. He did everything short of hold up the audience members at gunpoint to get them to enjoy themselves.

The show is really designed for Groucho fans who know the comedian well and appreciate his bits. Others should probably stay at home, unless they feel like getting embarrassed publicly for their lack of sufficient enthusiasm.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at lmillegan@modbee.com or 578-2313.

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