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Enter Laughing Serves Up Schmaltz
The York Theatre Turns 50 with an old old old old friend
The York Theatre Co celebrates 50 years in 2019 and has re-mounted their 2009 much-lauded production of the musical Enter Laughing. Originally produced for Broadway under the title So Long 174th Street, this old-fashioned musical comedy was way too old fashioned for 1976 audiences that wanted concept and experimental musicals that pushed whatever envelope they thought the 1970s were wrapped up in. Opening the season after A Chorus Line and Chicago, So Long 174th Street racked up a total of 16 performances after its six previews.
With a book by Your Show Of Shows veteran Joseph Stein (author of plays Fiddler On The Roof, Zorba and Rags) and a score by Stan Daniels, Enter Laughing is an adaptation of the novel 'Enter Laughing' by Carl Reiner, also of Your Show of Shows, and is a mildly autobiographical story combining old show business tropes, stereotypes and stories with some of Reiner's teenage life experiences as he struggled to make his way onto the stage. When Stein adapted the book into a stage comedy in 1963 it enjoyed a respectable year-long run and won Alan Arkin his only Tony award. The play was later turned into a 1967 film featuring Shelley Winters, Jose Ferrer, and Elaine May.
Returning the musical to its original source title and tweaking it to adapt the piece to a cast of 10(ish), Director Stuart Ross (father of Forever Plaid and all the little Plaids) has staged this show beautifully -- it is directed, choreographed (by the gifted Jennifer Paulson-Lee) designed (by James Morgan) costumed (by Tyler M. Holland) lit (by Ken Billington & Jason Kantrowitz) to a fine fare-thee-well. In fact, all departments from Kenneth Griffin's stylish wigs to Brooke van Hensbergen wonderfully period props to Julian Evans never-sounded-amplified sound design deliver their assignments admirably.
Enter Laughing is the story of young David Kolowitz, who opens the show by stumbling into a ramshackle depression era theatre to make a delivery from the machine shop where he is employed by the ever-annoyed Mr. Forman (brought to comedy life by the terrific Ray DeMattis) David is immediately stagestruck and wanders the theatre wings dreaming of the day he will tread the boards. The opening number, 'David Kolowitz The Actor', is a repetitive piece of drivel, unhappily reprised near the end of Act 2 for a few lines – a few too many. David makes up his mind to audition for the pay-as-you-exit 'free theatre' not knowing at first the $5 promised is to come out of his own pocket as a sort of 'tuition' for this learning institution. The company is run by the over the top, sloshed and washed up Marlowe, given a fine turn by David Schramm who embodies his character’s scenery chewing, all the while living in real and palpably sympathetic ways. Always drinking and forever frustrated by David's inexperience, Schramm's Marlowe stomps about the backstage of his kingdom swinging wildly from the depths of depression with his ever-present bottle of whiskey, to near mania at just trying to get through the show. David hits roadblocks along his way to opening night in the form of parents that just want him to become a druggist, Marlowe's divinely horny daughter Angela, who informs him he must make another $10 investment on a Tux to wear in the show, and his jealous girlfriend Wanda, who loans him the ten bucks. All comes right in the end; and we the audience know that David grows up to direct, write and act, as well as father the 'Meathead' who gave us the movie The Princess Bride, as well as share a lifelong bit with a 2000-year-old man -- that is, if we the audience know our pop culture and cinematic history.
The Enter Laughing ensemble is comprised of superb elder craftsman and extremely gifted young artists, all of whom throw themselves into a book and score that is not really up to their standards. Everyone delivers whether their parts call for over the top theatrical shenanigans or more subdued (if a bit stereotyped) Jewish mamma and poppa-isms. In this regard, the incomparable Alison Fraser and Robert Picardo (returning to the stage after way too long) deliver the right mix of Hebrew Hokum and musical comedy deftness that steers them away from Hokie Town. Picardo and DeMattis score a hit song and dance routine in Act 2 with 'Hot Cha Cha' that was my first genuine belly laugh of the night, sadly a bit late in the proceedings. Farah Alvin, whose clear trumpet-like voice has graced every stage in town, gives it her all as Angela, a chip off her father's very large block as far as theatrical mannerisms and drama begetting drama goes. Chris Dwan's David is an adorable, nebbishy protagonist, though his role has no real arc, which can be said of all these characters -- though each player makes the most of what little they are given. Acquitting themselves very well in thankless roles are the hilarious Raji Ahsan who times the few lines he's given expertly, Dana Costello who struggles mightily with an underwritten Miss B for two scenes, the lovely songstress Allie Trimm, whose comedy chops show even though she's chewing nothing but air with this script, and finally poor Joe Veale who's messy Marvin serves only to saunter on stage and point David in the right direction and then go back to join the cast for chorus back up duties. It should be said that David Schramm scores the iconic 'The Butler’s Song', and with it, he scores big time.
Producing Artistic Director Jim Morgan adds a droning 10 minutes to the show's lugubrious 2:22 running time with a pre-show schpiel that should be cut in half, or cut altogether. Ross' retooling of the show seems nothing more than a few tweaks, cutting some numbers and moving others around, but despite his wonderful staging, everything fails to rise from the pit of schmaltz the show ultimately drowns in. Enter Laughing is an overlong tour of the upper east side and theatrical stereotypes that fails to launch. Is the show worth a look? I didn't hate it, and many of the matinee crowd I sat with really enjoyed it, so it is clearly a matter of taste. In the end, if you like old style musical comedy, family-friendly entertainment with some fine acting and singing of a couple of good tunes, then this show's for you.
Enter Laughing runs about 2 hours 22 minutes with one intermission.
Enter Laughing has been extended, through popular demand, through June 16.
York Theatre Company
619 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10022
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