Monday, February 9, 2009

Enter Laughing


Music and lyrics by Stan Daniels, book by Joseph Stein. Dir. Stuart Ross. York Theatre at Saint Peter's Church. (CLOSED)

The York Theatre production of Enter Laughing, a musical reworking of the 1976 flop So Long, 174th Street, in turn based on a semi-autobiographical play by Carl Reiner, opened to very strong reviews in September 2008, with some dissent centering on the gap between the hilarious book and the so-so score. The show, about a young Jewish man from the Bronx who wants to become an actor, reopened January 29, with two cast changes (Bob Dishy, replacing George S. Irving, who received raves back in September, and Marla Schaffel in for Janine LaMama). Not replaced: The charming young lead, Josh Grisetti, who gets across-the-board kudos. Some publications have re-reviewed the production, and others didn't; even with the changes, we've deemed the production similar enough to group last fall's reviews with the new ones (reviews of the Sept. run are designated with a *). A+
(Michael Dale) When the York Theatre first presented its mainstage mounting of "Enter Laughing" back in September I wrote that, while far too early to tell, it might well wind up being the funniest, most entertaining production of a musical we'll see this season. Four months later, I must admit that it has indeed been topped... by itself. After taking a hiatus while the space was committed for another show, director Stuart Ross' slam-bang mounting returns to the York a little funnier, a little snazzier and featuring the best male leading performance in a musical the season has seen thus far.

*New York Post A+
(Frank Scheck) "Enter Laughing: The Musical" is the funniest tuner to hit town since "The Producers." And why not? Like Mel Brooks, both Carl Reiner and Joseph Stein ("Fiddler on the Roof") wrote for "Your Show of Shows," the greatest incubator of comedic talent in the history of show business. And composer Stan Daniels created another TV show you may have heard of: "Taxi"...Stuart Ross' inspired staging for this decidedly low-budget production by the York Theatre Company fully exploits the show's witty humor. Stein's book contains guffaw-inducing one-liners aplenty, and Daniels' score is even funnier.

Time Out New York A
(Raven Snook) The main event here is [Josh] Grisetti. A virtual unknown, he gives the kind of performance that makes you wonder what else he’s capable of. With any luck, we’ll find out.

*New York Times A
(Neil Genzlinger) Josh Grisetti wasn’t even born when the musical version of “Enter Laughing” flopped on Broadway in 1976, but he was certainly born to play the lead in the hilarious second-chance staging of it being presented by the York Theater Company. Mr. Grisetti, a 26-year-old with few New York stage credits but an expressive mug that suggests he’ll have many more, delivers a smashing comedic performance as an awkward young man who has grand visions of being a famous actor. With a gung-ho supporting cast and nutty songs wittily staged by Stuart Ross, all you can do is wonder, How did this thing fail so badly the first time around?

*TheaterMania A
(Barbara & Scott Siegel) The sprightly arrangements and orchestrations are by the show's musical director, Matt Castle, who also doubles (very effectively) as an actor in an extremely inspired bit of comic business. The set design by James Morgan is elegantly simple; the lighting design by Chris Robinson is bright and sometimes even funny in its own right; and costume designer David Toser captures the period with aplomb. With any luck, "Enter Laughing" will have many extensions, transfers, and a long regional life. It's a perfect example of classic musical comedy -- something that's very rare to find these days.

Associated Press A-
(Michael Kuchwara) Daniels' score is serviceable, but several numbers are more than that--most melodically "So Long, 174th Street," a jaunty farewell to the Bronx neighborhood that David wants so desperately to leave. "Enter Laughing" aspires to nothing more demanding than a good time. With the invaluable Grisetti leading the charge, that's practically guaranteed.

AM New York A-
(Matt Windman) Quite a few changes have been made since the fall. While much of the ensemble choreography has been cleaned up and set pieces have been added (including a brightly lit “Kolowitz” sign inspired by “Gypsy”), one of the cutest songs, “I’m Undressing Girls with My Eyes,” has been mercilessly cut. Stan Daniels’ songs are cute, character-driven and catchy, especially the showstopper “Butler’s Song” (“He’s screwing Dolores Del Rio…”). Though we’d prefer to hear the score played by a bigger orchestra than merely three musicians, this remains a fairly large production for a theater located in a church basement.

*Wall Street Journal B+
(Terry Teachout) A few years later, Stan Daniels, a much-admired comedy writer who worked on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Taxi" but longed to write songs, collaborated with Mr. Stein on a Broadway musical based on "Enter Laughing." It opened in 1976, closed two weeks later, and has now resurfaced in a modest but hugely effective production that makes the most of the show's manifold comic virtues, nearly all of which are to be found in Mr. Stein's just-about-perfect book. If only Mr. Daniels's score were better! His songs are both undramatic (most of them are cabaret-style specialty numbers that stop the action dead in the water) and unmelodic (the tunes are reminiscent of Mel Brooks on an off day). But Mr. Stein's book is so well made that you'll laugh anyway, and Mr. Ross's cast is so fine that you'll laugh even harder.

*New Jersey Star-Ledger B+
(Michael Sommers) Built upon old-school Broadway lines, Stein's script packs plenty of easygoing laughs. Daniels' stack of 16 short, upbeat songs features often humorous lyrics and a light '30s air among the melodies...Director Stuart Ross nimbly fields York Theatre Company's energetic off-Broadway premiere with 14 actors and three musicians. While James Morgan's scenery conveys a backstage atmosphere, don't expect million-dollar visuals. Do expect to meet a swell cast.

*CurtainUp B+
(Elyse Sommer) The best and funniest part of this new "Enter Laughing" is still Stein's book. But thanks to Stuart Ross's sprightly staging, musical director Matt Castle and his combo's superb musicianship, and a cast that sings as well as it acts (and, when needed, even dances) those so-so songs somehow manage to sound oh so much better. All's well with the show that began so poorly in a more lavish venue on Broadway, now that it's landed in the York's modest underground theater.

* B+
(David Gordon) And "Enter Laughing" isn't the greatest musical ever written, either. Stein's script is very funny; Daniels's score is very catchy and memorable, but it seems like the whole thing works better as a small play. The first act is a bit overlong; the second is considerably stronger and funnier. Yet Stuart Ross's skilled production, filled with one of the strongest casts I've seen in a long time, truly makes a case for "Enter Laughing" as an undiscovered gem of American musical theatre, rather than a 16-performance flop.

*Village Voice B
(Michael Feingold) Thin and harmless, though not charmless, the second-rate material is enlivened by its largely lovable cast, and by director Stuart Ross's many imaginative strokes, which keep tickling the less-than-great jokes and tunes into bouncy vividness.

*Variety B
(Steven Suskin) At the York, the play portions border on the hysterical, with patrons rocking back and forth in their underupholstered seats. When Irving "directs" Grisetti, and when the latter rehearses tortured love scenes with Janine LaManna (as the great director's daughter of a certain age, lusting after the youngster), "Enter Laughing" plays as well as 91-year-old Stein -- who has been in constant attendance -- could desire. But the problem with this tuner is the tunes. Composer-lyricist Daniels was a TV man known as one of the producers of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and later of "Taxi." In his only musical attempt, Daniels turned out a steady stream of one-joke songs in which the single joke is so overworked, it makes Mel Brooks look like Frank Loesser.

Backstage B
(David Sheward) Stuart Ross stages the madness with invention and speed -- this is especially impressive given the small size of the Theatre at St. Peter's playing space. But the songs by Stan Daniels are too often repetitive dream sequences from David's adolescent imagination or one-joke punch lines reiterating points that have already been made in Stein's book. The main pleasures are derived from Ross' loony pacing and Grisetti's limning of the inept David's attempts at acting. It takes a good actor to play a bad one.

*NYMag B-
(Christopher Bonanos) But once you get away from the couple of genuinely funny songs, the show’s pretty thin and glib. It’s all the more dispiriting because there’s not a bad actor onstage here.

*Talkin' Broadway D+
(Matthew Murray) Boring is boring, whatever it's titled. Whether you want to call the revival that just opened at the York Theatre Company by its original name, "So Long, 174th Street," or by its artless new moniker, "Enter Laughing: The Musical," you're still referring to the same Joseph Stein-Stan Daniels tuner that flopped after 16 performances in 1976… What should be a breathless look at a young Jewish man in 1930s New York, David Kolowitz, who disregards his parents' ambitions for him and instead strives to become an actor, is so encumbered by its songs that it's never able to focus on its latent funny. Stein's dialogue pulses with hilarity as David battles his guilt-tripping parents, his three eccentric girlfriends, and the demented theatre denizens he encounters; and the antics comprising David's onstage escapades, border on the slapstick, but with enough affected gentility to never get tiring. The show, however, stumbles whenever it starts to sing. A+ 14; New York Post A+ 14; TONY A 13; New York Times A 13; Theatermania A 13; Associated Press A- 12; AMNY A- 12; WSJ B+ 11; CurtainUp B+ 11; NJ Star-Ledger B+ 11; B+ 11; Variety B 10; Backstage B 10; Village Voice B 10; NYMag B- 9; Talking' Broadway D+ 5; TOTAL: 179/16 = 11.19 (B+)

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