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Enter Laughing: The Musical

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - May 16, 2019

Chris Dwan and Cast
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Enter Laughing: The Musical has a curious resilience. It began as a semi-autobiographical novel, Carl Reiner's, about growing up in the late 1930s in the Bronx, toiling away in a machinist's shop, dreaming of becoming an actor, and obsessing about girls. Joseph Stein adapted it into a hit 1963 Broadway comedy starring a young Alan Arkin, which was successfully filmed, and then the property's fortunes sank. Musicalized and retitled So Long, 174thStreet, it opened on Broadway in 1976 and ran a couple of weeks. The timing for this sort of girls-and-gags thing was off, and it can't have been helped by having its hero — David Kolowitz, an ambitious teenager in the throes of sexual-peak horniness — portrayed by a 45-year-old Robert Morse.

But it never quite goes away, this one. Given its new title, harking back to the source material, it's had the occasional staging. One, at the York Theatre Company ten or so seasons ago, was a surprise hit. So much so that the York has brought it back, in a spiffy new production that accentuates its positives without eliminating the negatives.

This is an odd one. Stein adapted his own play, about David (Chris Dwan here) pursuing an acting career and several girls, while the music and lyrics were assigned to Stan Daniels. Daniels was known mostly as a sitcom writer, a prime force behind "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and it shows. Anything for a laugh, and except for one waltz ballad at the top of the second act, every single song is a comedy number. Many of these reside in David's active fantasy life, about becoming an actor and boffing movie stars. Best known is "The Butler's Song," with the butler in his dream informing a caller that David isn't available because "He's screwing Dolores Del Rio" (and Hedy Lamarr, and Dorothy Lamour, and a dozen or two others). It's a reliable laugh-getter that George S. Irving sang for the rest of his life after the original run; David Schramm, and this is no small compliment, matches him. But like many of the songs, it's a simple comic idea that goes on for many, maybe too many, verses.

And Enter Laughing is surfacey, like . . . a sitcom. We're somewhere off the Grand Concourse, where David works listlessly in the repair shop of Mr. Forman (Ray DeMattis) and pursues a start-stop-start relationship with sweet Wanda (Allie Trimm), while flirting with Miss B (the rather spectacular Dana Costello). His mother (Alison Fraser) and father (Robert Picardo) would prefer that he go to druggist school, but he reads an audition ad and sees his future in it. He tries out for a Somerset Maughamish drawing-room piece, he's terrible, and the director (Schramm) knows it; but the leading lady, Angela (Farah Alvin), thinks David's cute. He's hired. So, all in one, a coming-of-age story, a theatrical-ambition tale, and a sex comedy, with David juggling the three females.

The comic possibilities in such a framework are bountiful enough, and this production makes the most of them, with a splendid cast and fine direction, by Stuart Ross, that teases out and amplifies the laughs. He's especially good at staging slapstick — David's onstage debut becomes a symphony of pratfalls — and even the scene changes are choreographed. Dwan's an earnest, clean-cut David with just the tenor for navigating Daniels's facile melodies, and he's believably the son of Fraser and Picardo. We wish Fraser had more and better to do than the trite "My Son the Druggist" and "If You Want to Break Your Mother's Heart," but she's a pleasure to have around. Alvin's Angela is a real find, a calculating prima donna with crack timing, and she gets maximum impact from another endless-variations-on-one-joke song, "The Man I Can Love" (must have a chin, some skin, etc.). Schramm's a treasure, always. Picardo and DeMattis have a near-show-stopper in "Hot Cha Cha," which isn't about anything but dazzles just the same, and other roles are admirably filled out by Raji Absan and Joe Veale. York Theatre fans, also look for a cameo by one Magnes Jarmo, who may look familiar, and looks like he's having fun.

It's perfectly cast, expertly staged, so why am I holding back the love? Well, the story is small, the characters on the simplistic side, and two and a half hours a long time to spend with them. The women-as-sex-objects motif, endemic to so many musicals from the mid-century and beyond, looks especially shopworn here. Even in this superior rendering, Enter Laughing: The Musical, for all the audience appreciation it generates, feels like a sketch with so-so songs, spun out, then spun out some more.

Enter Laughing: The Musical
Through June 9
The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's, 619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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