Enter Laughing - The Musical

The York Theatre Company, NYC

Reviewed by John Kenrick

September 2007

Glory be, an honest to goodness, bona fide musical comedy! At a time when Broadway is up to its spotlights in recycled old movies and self-spoofing pastiches, it is a revelation to encounter the real thing, and Enter Laughing - The Musical is the real thing in all its rip roaring glory. The York Theatre's Musical in Mufti series was instituted in 1994 to rediscover musicals that might otherwise lie forgotten, and this time around they have found a sensational little-known musical that outclasses anything Broadway has offered in recent seasons.

Although this jewel of a musical will be new to most people, it has been around for quite some time. Playwright Joseph Stein got to know Carl Reiner when they worked together writing for Sid Caesar's now legendary TV shows in the 1950s. In 1963, Stein adapted Reiner's semi-autobiographical comic novel Enter Laughing into a hit Broadway comedy. The story of a working class Jewish teenager in the Bronx dreaming of show business stardom during the dark days of the Great Depression proved to be a star-making vehicle for young Alan Arkin.

An almost inevitable musical adaptation reached Broadway in 1976 under the unlikely title of So Long 174th Street. Stein's libretto and a tuneful, laugh-packed score by the late Stan Daniels had the makings of a hit, but the musical suffered from the miscasting of 44 year old Robert Morse as the 18 year old lead. The plot was turned into a flashback, key characters were cut down or dropped altogether, and a vitally funny show fizzled. I was a high school student when I saw this ill-fated production at the now-defunct Harkness Theatre, and could not help wondering how this strong material might have worked in other hands.

Well, I only had to wait 31 years to see the musical Enter Laughing as its authors truly intended, and my sides are literally sore from the belly laughs. But unlike the so-called musical comedies of recent years, this show is not just an empty-headed yuck fest. At its core, Enter Laughing is a heartfelt coming of age story. Director Stuart Ross maintains a perfect balance between show biz razzmatazz and moments of recognizable human experience, and it is that combination which ignites roars of hilarity. Writing of this caliber has always been rare, but it truly vintage magic today. Songwriter Stan Daniels passed away earlier this year, but Joe Stein (still a dynamo at age 95) has kept interest in this show alive, and his restored script rates as the best libretto in town.

Josh Grisetti is a revelation as the ambitious but naive David Kolowitz, singing with brio and handling physical comedy with a flair that reminds me of the great Ray Bolger in his young prime. As his guilt-spewing mother, the wonderful Jill Eikenberry urges her son to give up his dreams and become a druggist -- charmingly abetted by her real-life husband (and longtime L.A. Law co-star) Michael Tucker.

Emily Shoolin strikes the right note of affectionate frustration as David's girlfriend, and lovely Kaitlin Hopkins perfection as the sophisticated if slightly man-crazed actress who David finds himself attracted to. Kelly Sullivan joins Grisetti for "You," a hilarious collection of love ballad clichés, and Broadway veteran Bruce Adler is a comic delight as the kindly boss Mr. Foreman. Not only is Matt Castle one of most gifted musical directors in the business today, but he can also act with real comic flair -- and no pant-less pianist ever looked better in an orthodox prayer shawl. (Don't ask -- just see it and enjoy a good howl!)

Glowing at the heart of this gifted cast is the beloved George S. Irving, who appeared in So Long 174th Street as Marlowe, the grandiose but unsucessful actor-manager who gives David his first questionable break as an actor. Irving returns to the role here embodying the theatricality of a lost age with matchless comic élan. Irving's singular, sonorous way with dialogue leaves audiences helpless with laughter, and his solo "The Butler's Song" remains one of the most shamelessly ribald and giddy moments in any musical.

Some think it is enough to make fun of musical comedy, or to pretend that a basically mediocre musical is really funny -- but Enter Laughing - The Musical is the real thing, a glorious musical comedy whose time has finally come. Rumor hath it that the York is hoping to stage a full scale production of this little known miracle. If so, we will have a chance to see how long-starved audiences will react to true musical comedy. I predict that, no matter how they enter, they will leave laughing, cheering and shouting hosannas -- just as I did.

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