The Musical

Book by Joseph Stein
Music and Lyrics by Stan Daniels
Based on the play by Joseph Stein
From the novel by Carl Reiner
Directed by Stuart Ross
A Production of the York Theatre
Theatre at St. Peter's Church / Citicorp Center
Lexington Ave at 54th Street  / (212) 935-5820

Reviewed by David Spencer

I have a strange relationship to the musical Enter Laughing: In my libretto classes IÕve cited its novel-play-and-film source material as fodder for a much better, richer musical than the quick flop that was originally produced in 1974 as So Long, 174th Street, and had my students forget the flop exists, go back to the source material to Ōtry and solve the problems the original creative team didnÕt.Ķ It tells Carl ReinerÕs semi-autobiographical tale of David Kolowitz, a young man in the Bronx of the 1930s who desires to be an actor, rather than the druggist his parents hope he might be. ItÕs a sweet and funny story with a lot to say not only about the theatre, but the difference between an immigrant generation and their born-in-America offspring, and the musical just laid it waste. Among its flaws was a framework that librettist Joseph Stein (author of the play and co-author of the film with Reiner) had to interpolate at his producerÕs insistence that Robert Morse, then nearly 45, should play David. Telling the story as a flashback (the theory went) would justify Morse playing himself as a younger man. The theory tanked and it was all pretty painful. Add to that a score by comedy writer Stan Daniels (since passed away) who didnÕt know how to dig deeply into the themes of the show, and so wrote a bunch of special material-type songs: some funny, some trivial, some irrelevant. The music was familiar and undistinguished and to describe the song-by-song effectiveness as Ōhit or missĶ puts it mildly.

                  In the very recent interim, director Stuart Ross, via the Musicals in Mufti series of staged reading revivals at the York, was given a chance to revisit the material. Going back to the original title and structure (sans flashback), casting David (and his best friend and girl friend) age appropriately, and streamlining the material for a smaller cast, he was able to relocate some of the source materialÕs original tone, restoring a good degree of verisimilitude and authenticity to the proceedings. But did he make it work?

                  Work here is just as strange a term as my teaching relationship to the material. Ross emphatically relocated the laughs and the funny; found a way to keep the ŌliteĶ version of the libretto and the mostly-about-laffs score from marginalizing each other; in order to accommodate the off-Broadway venue necessarily removed the bloat of over-production and huge cast; and thus rendered the piece also newly intimate. Audiences found the result so endearing and funny that Enter Laughing earned an unprecedented return Mufti engagement, leading to its current smallish but ŌfullĶ production, and extended engagement, also at the York.

                  If you consider the Mufti a solid sketch, this production is the full realization of the templateŅrealer props, more costumes, no scripts-in-hand, and some fine tuning of the materialŅbut very close to the same experienceÉbecause, why mess with it? Josh Grisetti is everything Robert Morse wasnÕt, thereÕs Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker as his parents, Emily Shoolin and Robb Sapp as his girlfriend and best friend, respectively, George S. Irving as a grand-mannered actor-manager (reprising the role he created in the Broadway flop!), Janine LaManna as his sex-starved actress-daughter, and others of similarly high octane in smaller supporting rolesŅincluding first-rate musical director Matt Castle whose transition from accompanist to actor to accompanist again is representative of the irreverent approach that has changed this showÕs profile. (IÕll get back to that in a minute.)

                  And audiences are still finding it hugely funny and delightfully entertaining. You canÕt argue with that and canÕt deny the show its vindication. And I donÕt. Yet ironically, all hands involved with the show are well and consciously aware of just how much of a parlor trick it was to make this material work in spite of its surface-thin approach to the story, and its funny but otherwise (mostly) undistinguished songs.

                  A great deal of that seems to be linked to the venue as well. ThereÕs something about the York as a particular institution, the way RossÕ staging makes irreverent on-the-cheap use of the space, which further enhances the charms. I wonder if it would play as well in any other, or bigger space. (And if it moved it would need one. These days, a cast of 14 off-Broadway is prohibitive in a commercial run.)

                  But itÕs the oddest goddamn thing: Ross and company have absolutely, beyond question made the event of this revival work as an evening. (Have I not yet come right out and said that I had a good time too? Well, I had a good time too.) Yet paradoxically, this is one of those rare triumphs of production over material. The show itself remains unsolved. The structure still doesnÕt bear scrutiny, the source material is still trivialized and the music is still negligible. Yet there is a curious, alchemical mix resulting from this material being assayed by those people in that theatre which seems to utterly transcend the stretches of show and song which shouldnÕt work, and wouldnÕt if done just slightly differently.

                  You can only enjoy it for what it is, not ask too many questions, and, if youÕre me, think seriously about swapping another flopÕs source material into your classroom curriculumÉ

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