It's the moment we've all been waiting for: when Mark Bedard steps out on stage as Groucho. That mustache. Those eyebrows. That voice.
"Did you miss me?" he says with an impish grin.
Yes, indeed, we did.
"You'll just have to improve your aim," he quips, and off we go for another rousing Marx Brothers musical at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where "The Cocoanuts" opened to frequent and boisterous applause Saturday night in the Bowmer Theatre.
Bedard first portrayed the mischievous and iconic troublemaker at OSF in "Animal Crackers" two years ago. This season, he's as endearing as ever, charming, scamming and punning his way as the owner of the bankrupt Cocoanuts Hotel in Florida in the 1920s.
"I'll put blankets in your room for free," he says. "There's no cover charge."
Groucho's Mr. Hammer hopes to take advantage of the Florida land boom by auctioning off bungalow plots. His bellhop, Jamison (Zeppo), falls in love with guest Polly, whose wealthy mother, Mrs. Potter, wants her to marry fellow guest Harvey Yates, whom she considers well-to-do and respectable.
But Yates is conning her with the help of gal pal Penelope Martin. Confusion ensues, compounded by the arrival of Harpo and Chico.
There's a jewelry theft and a bungling detective named Hennessey who manages to lose his shirt in the middle of it all.
Bedard is a master at improvising and will skewer anyone for a good laugh. (Warning: Do not choose to open your crinkly-paper-wrapped candy during a rare quiet moment. Bedard's sharpened senses will home in on you, and the entire house will be roaring in laughter at your expense.) He's not above taking full advantage of a fellow actor's hiccup, either, or milking the moment to make another actor laugh or to cover up a forgotten line. "What I meant was, if we can remember where we were ..."
Bedard's genius stretches beyond his physical presence on the stage. He also adapted the script, updating it with contemporary references and working with Director David Ivers and Musical Director Gregg Coffin to corral the original sprawling ensemble of orchestra, ballet dancers and chorus girls down to a five-piece band and a Greek chorus of three, buoyantly played by Miles Fletcher, Erin O'Connor and Katie Bradley.
The tighter cast of 17 total on stage focuses the action, propelling the purposely flimsy plot forward as Groucho's get-rich-quick scheme deteriorates into mayhem — and sheer delight for the audience — and the love story blossoms between Zeppo (Eduardo Placer) and Polly Potter (Jennie Greenberry).
Reprising their roles from "Animal Crackers" are Brent Hinkley as Harpo, John Tufts as Chico and K.T. Vogt as Margaret Dumont, the straight woman in seven of the Marx Brothers' films.
The three are as funny as ever. Hinkley, who mustn't say a word as the mute Harpo, uses his clownish facial expressions and feigned innocence to full effect. Tufts about brings the house down as Chico unintentionally thwarts Groucho's big auction and provides the "entertainment" during Mrs. Potter's lavish engagement dinner for her daughter.
Vogt is a delight to watch as the foil for the brothers' antics, easily charmed, easily offended, often clueless but never undignified. Kate Mulligan is a hoot as the conniving Penelope, and you won't soon forget her antics with Bedard in "Why Am I a Hit with the Ladies?"
Amid the mayhem are Irving Berlin's gorgeous songs, including the beloved "Always," featuring the beautiful soprano voice of Greenberry and Placer's soaring tenor.
With the help of choreographer Jaclyn Miller, director Ivers' sight gags, broad slapstick and intricate dance routines entertain and astound — particularly in Act II, when the cast engages in what can best be described as a synchronized glass-on-the-table slam. How did they keep that up so perfectly for so long?
Another memorable moment arrives when David Kelly, as Hennessey, sings "The Tale of a Shirt" done "Carmen" style: "I want my shirt. I want my shirt. I can't be happy without my shirt."
"The Cocoanuts" has so much going on it's no wonder the timing may have been off in a couple of spots on opening night, particularly the jewelry theft scene in which at least half the cast is going in and out of four doors in two rooms, a glitch that will disappear as the play gels.
If there's a criticism at all, it's that it is nearly impossible to hear all of the clever lines penned by George S. Kaufman, the Marx Brothers and Bedard: The audience is laughing just too dang much.