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A CurtainUp Review
Enter Laughing, The Musical
By Elyse Sommer
Take note, I preceded that word flop with "musical." Carl Reiner's 1958 novel, Enter Laughing, was by no means a flop. In fact, it was successful enough to inspire Reiner's friend and colleague Joseph Stein (yes--the same Joseph Stein who wrote the book for Fiddler on the Roof and Zorba!) to turn it into a play. That play, like the book, was a success. It opened at New York's Henry Miller Theater in 1965 and ran for 419 performances, nabbing a Tony for young Alan Arkin who played Reiner's 17-year-old alter ego, David Kolowitz. A few years later the play metamorphosed into a motion picture with Stein and Reiner sharing producing and screenplay credits, and Reiner directing. While both the play and the film have been somewhat eclipsed by Neil Simon's Eugene trilogy (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound), the play has been seen here and there on the regional circuit (we saw an excellent production six years ago at Berkshire Theater Festival).
So what went wrong with So Long 174th Street, the title of Enter Laughing's short-lived (16 performances) incarnation as a musical in 1976? Seventeen-year-old David Kolowitz's is an endearingly awkward but hungry for life hero for a musical. The segues between his humdrum depression era life working in a machinist's shop, being nudged by his parents to become a pharmacist, but in his daydreams leading a more glamorous life as an actor, are naturals for lively musical production numbers. While Stan Daniels songs don't etch themselves into one's musical consciousness like those in Fiddler on the Roof, "Boy, Oh Boy" does have a Fiddler flavor and the score overall is catchy.
What probably sank that ill-fated 1976 musicalized Enter Laughing was the casting of Robert Morse, who was entering his mid-forties and way too old to play David. Miscast and without at least a few breakout hits, So Long 174th Street slunk into oblivion— that is, until York artistic director James Morgan, encouraged by the response to a concert version of the musical, decided to launch the company's main stage season with a new version -- renamed Enter Laughing to link it to its more successful antecedents (the novel, the play and the film).
The best and funniest part of this new Enter Laughing is still Stein's book. But thanks to Stuart Ross's sprightly staging, musical director Matt Castle and his combo's superb musicianship, and a cast that sings as well as it acts (and, when needed, even dances) those so-so songs somehow manage to sound oh so much better. All's well with the show that began so poorly in a more lavish venue on Broadway, now that it's landed in the York's modest underground theater..
The double casting coup of this production is represented by a young unknown and an 85-year-young stage veteran who was one of So Long 174th Street's chief assets. Josh Grisetti looks as you expect an awkward, dreamy, and very horny seventeen-year-old to look. He's a Ray Bolger look-alike with perfect comic timing, who sings well, moves as if his bones were made of rubber, and has tons of easy charm. On the further end of the age spectrum is veteran thespian George S. Irving. He's reprising his role as Marlowe, the actor-manager whose theater has been reduced to directing wannabe but incompetent actors like David. Irving has the audience in stitches. His turn as a butler in David's dream, fending off all the famous actresses wanting to share his bed ("The Butler's Song") is a show stopper that really lives up to that tired old cliche about a scene that is all by itself worth the price of admission.
While Grisetti and Irving are standouts, the rest of the cast is also excellent. Off-Stage husband and wife, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker of LA Law fame, are terrific as David's parents. Tucker has a lovely song and dance duet ("Hot Cha Cha") with Ray DeMattis who play's Dave's boss. Emily Shoolin is sweet and strong of voice as David's neighborhood sweetheart Wanda and Janine LaManna is appropriately sultry as Angela Marlowe, David's on-stage love interest. Music director Matt Castle leaves his piano at the side of the stage long enough to contribute his own comic bit to the proceedings.
James Morgan has worked wonders with very little to make the tiny stage accommodate a variety of settings, including windows at each side of the stage that pop open for performers to join in during ensemble numbers. The ensemble numbers are especially impressive and greatly enhanced by Chris Robinson's lighting.
With the daily headlines rarely bringing us news to make us laugh, you could do a lot worse than see a show which will have you laughing — from the the minute David enters, to the bang-up show within the show finale.