When Enter Laughing: The Musical opened in fall 2008, the York Theatre Company struck gold in their excavation and refinement of a 1976 flop musical, So Long 174th Street. Using the title of the play by Joseph Stein and novel by Carl Reiner on which it is based, Enter Laughing was hailed by critics as a musical gem, prompting the New York Times critic to write, “All you can do is wonder, how did this thing fail so badly the first time around?” Although the York’s revival of Enter Laughing, in a nearly identical production to the original, may have lost some of its luster, the show retains most of its charm.
Set in 1938, the musical follows David Kolowitz (Chris Dwan), a machine-shop lackey, who has visions of becoming a star of the stage and screen. David gets his chance to pursue his dream when he responds to an audition notice for a second-rate theater troupe managed by Harrison Marlowe (David Schramm), who is also the company’s headliner. Marlowe’s daughter Angela (Farah Alvin) is the alluring leading lady, and she takes an instant liking to the inexperienced young thespian, and he is hired.
David’s parents (Alison Fraser and Robert Picardo) have other ideas for their son’s future and want him to pursue a more stable profession as a pharmacist, but they eventually stand behind him. David’s girlfriend Wanda (Allie Trimm) is more encouraging, but she is afraid that when David becomes a celebrity, he will leave her for Carole Lombard or Jean Harlow. (He assures her he will not.) David also gets support from his best friend Marvin (Joe Veale) as well as a last-minute save from a beguiling secretary, Miss B (Dana Costello).
The one thing David lacks, however, is talent. He bounds onto the stage when he should enter gracefully, and he is unable to restrain himself from saying, or, at the least, mouthing his scene partner’s lines in performance. In fact, the biggest compliment the director can muster about David’s progress is that he is “beginning to sound human.” As opening night draws nearer, David concedes that he is not very good. Marlowe responds, “You know it, I know it. Now our job is to keep that little secret from the audience.”
Joseph Stein’s book is chockful of choice jokes and comic bits even as it recycles stereotypes of guilt-inducing Jewish mothers and unappreciated, long-suffering Jewish fathers. (As David’s father says, “I don’t have a birthday. No, in the old country, who knew from birthdays. . . . You were lucky if you just got born.”) The songs (with musical direction by Phil Reno) by Stan Daniels are serviceable, and they are most successful when they parody standards from the 1930s. There is also a genuine showstopper in “The Butler’s Song,” which is reminiscent of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets.” In this number David fantasizes about the logistical impossibility of scheduling a rendezvous with Greta Garbo.
Under Stuart Ross’s direction and enlivened by Jennifer Paulson-Lee’s choreography, most of the jokes and musical numbers land. Even the sexist comic business, throwbacks to a different era, seem relatively inoffensive within the current #MeToo movement.
Revisiting the show, however, is like seeing a better-than-competent replacement cast. The previous production featured an inspired (and what should-have-been star-making) performance by Josh Grisetti. Dwan, a more conventional leading man, is quite likeable as David, but he lacks the sublime goofiness of his predecessor, who drew huge guffaws as he rebuffed the coterie of beautiful and adoring women. Schramm is terrific as the arrogant and blustering director, but he is no match for the late George S. Irving, who originated the role in the original Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. In fact, all of the performers are strong, but missing from the evening is a laugh-till-it-hurts level of lunacy.
James Morgan’s scenic design, Tyler M. Holland’s costume design, and especially Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz’s lighting design give the production a gleaming 1930s look and clever visuals. Indeed, audiences unfamiliar with Enter Laughing will no doubt have a good time. Return visitors, on the other hand, might notice that Enter Laughing may have lost some of its sparkle, but the show remains a musical-comedy treasure.
Enter Laughing: The Musical plays through June 9 at the York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue). Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday at 2:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by calling (212) 935-5820, online at yorktheatre.org, or in person at the box office at the York Theatre.