Cracking Up

enter-laughing-playIt is rare for a failed musical to be given a second chance over thirty years after its unsuccessful debut and turn out, in its new production, to be a rousing success. But, that is exactly what is happening at the York Theatre, where Enter Laughing has not only been given a delectable mounting, but has also gotten great reviews and become a solid hit.

You may have heard of Enter Laughing, but probably not its musical rendition. It debuted back in 1958 as a "semi-autobiographical" novel by Carl Reiner, and was turned into a successful Broadway play, starring Alan Arkin, in 1963.

A few years later, Enter Laughing became a motion picture. So far, so good. But, when it was made into a Broadway musical in 1976, titled So Long, 174th Street, it flopped quickly, closing after just sixteen performances. Not much was heard of the musical for over thirty years, until the York changed the title to Enter Laughing The Musical and mounted it last year as part of its Musicals in Mufti series, which offers bare-bones, semi-staged concert versions of neglected musicals. It worked so well that the York brought it back for a second Musicals in Mufti run; now it is being given a full production.

The musical is written by Joseph Stein, author of Fiddler on the Roof, among other shows, and writer of the original stage version of Enter Laughing, with music by Stan Daniels, who was best known as the Emmy-winning co-creator and executive producer of the television hit Taxi, as well as a writer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And, lo and behold, the York has turned this former flop musical into a hilarious, total delight. I saw it during one of its Musicals in Mufti runs, and I saw it again early in its current run; I enjoyed both visits. I re-visited the show again this week, and I was amazed how much the already good comic timing had improved and been fine tuned, and how the show had now become a completely winning evening of comic merriment and charm. It is not a perfect musical -- there isn't much dramatic conflict or emotion. And, perhaps, there are still a few moments early on where it drags ever so slightly. But, as the evening goes on, there are genuine laugh-out-loud moments that are hysterically funny – as funny as anything I've seen on or off Broadway in quite some time.

Much of the hysteria is thanks to the exceptional comic work of Josh Grisetti and the amazing George S. Irving. Grisetti plays the role of the stage-struck protagonist, young David Kolowitz; his parents want him to be a pharmacist, but the youth really wants to be an actor, and the musical lets us watch the fun that ensues as David gets his first acting opportunity. One of the problems with the original musical version was that the role was played by Robert Morse who, at the time, was almost 45 years old -- far too old to play the young David. Grisetti combines youthful awkwardness and wonderful comic expressiveness to give a totally winning performance. His facial expressions and body language are perfect, and his look of glee in certain moments is priceless. Broadway veteran Irving, at 86 years of age, is repeating the role he created in the musical back in 1976, and he is, quite simply, a theatrical treasure. His comic timing is brilliant, and his rendition of "The Butler's Song" is a show-stopper.

Stein's book has some great comic lines and scenes, while Daniels's score is bouncy and tuneful. The songs are either comic songs, many with some truly witty lyrics, or charm songs, and I do wish he had provided one or two ballads to add some weight to the evening. But the songs do bring an added dimension to the musical and provide some genuine charm, along with some real highlights. Several of the songs represent David's fantasies, often about the women he encounters. The opening number ("David Kolowitz, The Actor") sets the entire show up nicely, instantly displaying both David's desire to be an actor and his tendency to fantasize; the marvelous Janine LaManna delivers a very funny take-off on the classic torch song, called "The Man I Love." Michael Tucker (of LA Law fame) and Ray DeMattis make a song called "Hot Cha Cha" into a real charmer. And Tucker's wife, Jill Eikenberry (also from LA Law), is amusing as Grisetti's mother. The show culminates in a totally hilarious final scene, followed by a breezy and lilting closing song, "So Long 174th Street," and it all makes for a pretty sublime conclusion.

Credit must also go to Stuart Ross, who has provided some snappy and clever direction, and has staged the production with real wit. You may not enter the York Theatre laughing, but I'm willing to bet you'll laugh a lot as Enter Laughing unfolds, with the scenes between Josh Grisetti and George S. Irving being particularly noteworthy. All in all, the mix of solid material, a strong cast, and inventive direction result in a delectable evening of hilarity, charm, and some good musical numbers. Enter Laughing has been given an extension at the York. Hopefully, it will find a home after its York run is over. This one time flop musical has re-emerged as a delightful evening of musical comedy. - Jim Miller

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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