So there was this 1958 semi-autobiographical book called “Enter Laughing”, written by funny man Carl Reiner. The book got turned into a 1963 play written by Joseph Stein, then turned into a 1967 movie, with both Reiner and Stein on screenplay. Later, the play inspired a 1976 Broadway musical entitled So Long, 174th Street, which played a dismal 16 performances. It seems incredible that a recording of the show was made in 1981.
Not daunted by the musical’s sketchy past, the York Theatre Company has come back with a second revival of the piece to celebrate its 50th anniversary in show business, this time with the revised title Enter Laughing: The Musical, book by Stein and music/lyrics by Stan Daniels.
Picture it: 1930’s, Depression-era New York. David Kolowitz (Chris Dwan), a cheerful young man with an eye for the ladies, dreams of being (a famous) actor while suffering for wages in Forman’s Machine Repair shop.
As full of determination as he is free of talent, Kolowitz responds to a newspaper listing given to him by jovial coworker Marvin (Joe Veale), an ad for “Marlowe Free Theatre and School for Dramatic Arts Scholarships for Promising Young Actors”, and manages to join the theater troupe, much to the dismay of his classically Jewish parents (Alison Fraser and Robert Picardo), who have big dreams for him to go to pharmacy school and become a “druggist”.
Serving up thick, juicy, slices of theatrical ham is the leader of the theater school, Marlowe (David Schramm). Marlowe is not convinced of Kolowitz’ theatrical potential but his daughter and actress Angela (Farah Alvin) bats her eyes and insists she wants her father to take “the cute one” into the cast for their upcoming show. Kolowitz’ plucky girlfriend Wanda (Allie Trimm) is supportive but her confidence waivers at his flirtations with Angela, and she doesn’t even know about his romantic trifling with buxom secretary Miss B (Dana Costello).
I may have entered the theater laughing from the company of my witty and charming theater companion, but I definitely exited the theater laughing at the sheer comic genius of the actors and artistic team. The production, script and score of this show is the stuff that corn-fed dreams are made of!
Let’s talk about the women here for a moment: the characters of Wanda, Miss B and Angela could easily have blurred together had it not been for the unique acting qualities and comic stylings that Allie Trimm, Dana Costello and Farah Alvin (respectively) bring to their roles. Utterly delightful actors and singers all.
Now I have to share that that I quite often deliberately avoid researching shows prior to attending in order to keep from reading any other commentary. I also don’t read the program until after the show, so that I may experience the cast without any influence of their prior work and successes. So imagine my utter surprise and joy when Kolowitz’ endearingly feisty, manipulative old Jewish mother walked on the stage and began to sing. Until that moment I had no idea who she was, I certainly didn’t recognize her on sight as an old lady, but my heart jumped with joy to hear the unmistakable voice of Alison Fraser! What a lovely revelation, her appearance was worth the price of admission.
The men in this cast also deserve special mention. Dwan as Kolowitz charms and disarms both his fellow characters and the audience with ease; his rubbery face and form could squeeze a laugh out of a corpse. David Shramm’s Marlowe plays the self-absorbed, boozy acting snob to perfection. Even the more one-off characters of Mr. Forman (Ray DeMattis), Father (Robert Picardo), Marvin (Joe Veale), and Pike (Raji Ahsan) hold their own and create special moments for themselves.
The audience got a hefty chuckle at a special appearance by The York’s Producing Artistic Director Jim Morgan as Miss B’s date to the big show and provider of a much-needed last minute tuxedo for Kolowitz.
Direction and musical staging by Stuart Ross is inventive and deliciously funny, as is the choreography by Jennifer Paulson-Lee, especially (but not limited to) the clever use of the cast as back up singers for featured numbers and the hysterically staged scene changes. Costumes by Tyler M. Holland are in excellent character alignment, eye-catching and nicely contrasting the deliberately lackluster depression-era scenic design by James Morgan.
Upon leaving the show I felt I’d just seen a two-and-a-half hour musicalized version of the Carol Burnett Show, and folks, that’s the greatest compliment I could give to any comedic piece of musical theater.
Look no further than Enter Laughing: the Musical to get your frenetic, farcical fix for the season.
Enter Laughing: The Musical (through June 9, 2019), The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue), in Manhattan. Two hours, 30 minutes, one intermission. For tickets call (212) 935-5820 or visit here.