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Enter Laughing: The Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Enter Laughing
Josh Grisetti and Emily Shoolin.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Boring is boring, whatever it's titled. Whether you want to call the revival that just opened at the York Theatre Company by its original name, So Long, 174th Street, or by its artless new moniker, Enter Laughing: The Musical, you're still referring to the same Joseph Stein-Stan Daniels tuner that flopped after 16 performances in 1976.

Of course, today's trendy marketing techniques aim to divert attention from the reasons the bomb exploded in the first place: The musical simply isn't very good. The source, originally Carl Reiner's 1958 novel and then Stein's 1963 play and the 1967 film based on it, has good laughs and good name recognition, which explains how this show catapulted from two showings at the York's Musicals in Mufti concert series to a mainstage engagement.

What it doesn't have is everything else. What should be a breathless look at a young Jewish man in 1930s New York, David Kolowitz, who disregards his parents' ambitions for him and instead strives to become an actor, is so encumbered by its songs that it's never able to focus on its latent funny. Stein's dialogue pulses with hilarity as David battles his guilt-tripping parents, his three eccentric girlfriends, and the demented theatre denizens he encounters; and the antics comprising David's onstage escapades, border on the slapstick, but with enough affected gentility to never get tiring. The show, however, stumbles whenever it starts to sing.

David's "I want" song, for example, is the stuffed-shirt and swirling-cape fantasy "David Kolowitz, The Actor," which borrows the theatrical myth of the pompous superstar without truly becoming it. Songs like "I'm Undressing Girls With My Eyes," about imaginary contact with female flesh, and "He Touched Her," about the real kind, are vulgar only for vulgarity's sake. "It's Like" and "Being With You" give David and his main squeeze Wanda two parodies of the same clingy duet - because isn't the idea just so gosh-darn silly it needs to be skewered as often as possible?

This proto-Producers needed the equivalents of Mel Brooks and Glen Kelly more than it did Daniels, because their hoary stereotypes would have the requisite unnecessary outrageousness. A show that turns on convincing you, and its hero, of theatre's ingratiating weirdness requires nothing less. The lumbering score kills the crackle the book generates, without ever advancing a character, a plot point, or (most important) a laugh. Director Stuart Ross's staging, which is high on pizzazz but short on style, can't compensate. Nor can the cast, which is just as efficient and just as workmanlike.

If there's no one here as robustly wrong as a mid-40s Robert Morse, who was the absurdly miscast original David, though he at least would have had some unique zing. In that role here, Josh Grisetti is a tireless trooper with the right gawky demeanor and a strong singing voice, but he never blooms as David does: You never believe that acting unlocks something essential in him; from beginning to end, he plays little more than a wide-eyed country boy who gapes upon seeing New York for the first time, but never feels compelled to move there.

Enter Laughing
Janine LaManna, Josh Grisetti, and George S. Irving.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Emily Shoolin is a bizarre encapsulation of businesslike neuroses as Wanda, and doesn't seem a properly grounding force for the head-in-the-clouds David. An overripe but undercooked Janine LaManna doesn't especially convince as David's actress honey, Angela. On the other hand, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker generally embrace the right Semitic shenanigans as David's parents; Tucker even gets one of the score's few highlights in "Hot Cha Cha," his duet with Ray DeMattis (as David's boss) saluting the bygone days.

George S. Irving doesn't need to look back on anything. As David's impresario mentor Harrison Marlowe, he is the old school personified: indignant and irascible, but classy, the Artist-with-a-capital-A who imparts authority just by tilting his neck half a degree or narrowing his eyes half a millimeter. Marlowe doesn't do small; Irving, whose career has spanned well over 60 years (including this role in So Long, 174th Street the first time around) doesn't either.

Whether firing off one of his signature tunes, "The Butler's Song," a raunchy sex fantasy envisioned from the foyer while David is otherwise engaged with Dolores del Rio, or merely laying land mines with his reassuringly unsettling furrowed-brow glare, Irving is inescapably within and above the show at all times. He reminds you, with every bellowed phrase and puffed-cheek take that, at its best, comedy isn't safe and it isn't dangerous, it just is. This show is not, and only radical rethinking - not not-so-radical retitling - can change that.


Enter Laughing: The Musical
Through October 12
The Theatre at Saint Peter's, Lexington Avenue just south of 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.yorktheatre.org