The Friends of the Zoo

at the Roxy

In these troubled financial times, past successes are the name of the game for Chicago theaters. Bailiwick is bringing back last year’s hit, Animal Farm, the Prop Thtr is reviving Kerouac: The Essence of Jack, and Igloo is remounting A Fire Was Burning Over the Dumpling House One Chinese New Year. Now Friends of the Zoo has compiled a sort of “greatest hits” show: Oh My . . . Nuts!

Granted, Oh My . . . Nuts! is not as much a rerun as these other pieces. In the satirical hands of Mark Nutter (oops, sorry–the “late, great Mark Nutter,” as the ads and press releases refer to him), Oh My . . . Nuts! sends up all those musical-revue tributes to late, great songwriters–Cole, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and so on ad nauseam. It’s the “ad nauseam” that inspired Nutter to create a piece about his own works, with himself as deranged would-be genius–in between firing darts at the genre. In the meantime, the concept provides for a lot of audience favorites to be trotted out.

The thing about retreads, of course, is that they work. That’s why everyone’s doing it. But Oh My . . . Nuts! doesn’t just spew out old standards (if any of Nutter’s songs could be called that). Instead Nutter and his group have taken that idea and turned it back on themselves, actually creating a funny, original meal out of leftovers.

Because this is supposedly a tribute to a man who has written many shows (some Nutter works that were actually produced, others concocted for this revue), the cast begins and ends with the song “Hey, Mr. Nutter.” Here they express their feelings for the late, great man (whom the mysterious, unnamed piano player onstage suspiciously resembles). The other songs are arranged in various groupings, either around a theme (such as love) or around a show. Interspersed with these segments are stories about Nutter and his shows, all done in classic revue style.

One of the cleverest–and most instructive for the uninitiated–bits is from a fictitious play called Shut Up and Listen, a play in which nobody talks but the semitortured artist character that Nutter wrote for himself. One of the cast members (Peter Burns wearing glasses and doing a Nutter imitation) does a bit of that monologue for us. It is typical of the show that he comes off as snide, cynical, and jaded but without any hard edges or bitterness.

Oh My . . . Nuts! is a slick idea, and its performers are slick. Whether or not you like the sarcastic humor that envelops the show–which, don’t get me wrong, I do–it’s hard not to admire the obvious talent of Nutter and the Friends of the Zoo.

Particularly noteworthy performances were turned in by Karol Kent and Peter Burns. Kent is a little ball of energy with a big, big voice. She also gets to sing two of the best songs of the evening: “Teenage Drunken Driver,” which ruthlessly imitates 50s pop, and “Mr. Evil,” written as the theme song for an unspecified James Bond film. In “Mr. Evil,” Kent’s efforts get a lot of support from the rest of the cast, who cavort around her imitating the scenes that usually roll behind the opening credits of any James Bond movie. Burns’s songs are not as memorable, although “It Happens” (a song from Joey’s World, a send-up of Sinatra and Pal Joey) is a pretty wicked parody. Burns has a manic, on-the-edge quality that fits beautifully with Nutter’s offbeat style of songwriting.

Although Kent and Burns stand out, the other four–Paul Raci, Russ Flack, Mary Ruth Clarke, and that darned piano player–are by no means overwhelmed. Each holds his or her own, each has an individual, quirky personality to match the songs performed.

Oh My . . . Nuts! will probably deliver more for people who have seen the Friends’ past shows than for first-timers. A lot of the songs hit obvious chords in the audience members, some of whom laughed as soon as a first note was played. I hadn’t seen previous shows, and it was sometimes a little awkward to feel I was missing out on an in-joke. But the show is fun nonetheless, full of songs that must have worked before and certainly do the second time around.