If it worked as a book, it might work on the stage, thought playwright Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) when he adapted Enter Laughing, based on Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel. The play became an instant hit on Broadway in 1963, running for 419 performances before spawning a successful movie four years later that starred Jose Ferrer and Shelley Winters. In 1976, the show resurfaced as a musical called So Long, 174th Street, which is where things began to go wrong for this rags-to-better-rags Broadway tale. Reviews were scathing and the show died a swift death.
But like a showbiz zombie it came back from the dead in a well-received 2008 off-Broadway production, titled Enter Laughing — The Musical, which offered the same corny dialogue, clichés and caricatures in addition to a few drop-dead zingers and occasional laugh-out-loud lyrics.
Reiner’s story of David Kolowitz (Noah Weisberg), a Depression-era teen who has all the ambition and none of the talent required to make it on Broadway, is charming, if a little too simple. When Kolowitz auditions for Harrison Marlowe (Nick Ullett), he is overjoyed to learn he has landed a part in his first play. The problem is that his parents (Robert Picardo and Anne DeSalvo) have already decided on his future as a pharmacist. And to make matters worse, his leading lady, Marlowe’s daughter Angela (Amy Pietz), is giving him the eye, much to the consternation of his sweetheart, Wanda (Sara Niemietz).
There’s not a lot of story here, so most of the heavy lifting is left to the comedy and musical numbers. New York Times critic Clive Barnes was only half-right in 1976 when he wrote that composer-lyricist Stan Daniels should keep his day job as executive producer of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The opening number, “An Actor,” in which Kolowitz and company celebrate his showbiz ambitions, is a fine example of Daniels at his best and worst. It’s a bouncy tune with snarky one-liners, paradoxically droll and pedestrian at the same time, and a good example of what’s wrong and right with the show.
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Daniels redeems himself with a clever send-up of love duets between Kolowitz and Wanda, “It’s Like,” then knocks it out of the park with “The Man I Can Love,” a torch song in which Angela reveals her lax standards in men, requiring only “a nose, two arms and all ten toes.” Another duet that opens the second act, “Being With You,” is so sweet it’ll make you wanna plotz, but “The Butler’s Song,” by Marlowe is a showstopper, primarily due to Ullett’s outstanding performance. The problem is that for every agreeable song there’s a tired one, like “Hot Cha Cha” by Kolowitz’s boss, Mr. Forman (Joel Brooks).
Despite the creaky material and uneven numbers, Enter Laughing — The Musical is expertly mounted. Minimal space on Evan Bartoletti’s cramped set means minimal choreography, though Stuart Ross directs his cast with expert comedic timing, starting with Weisberg as Kolowitz.
Looking a bit like Harold Lloyd, he’s the quintessential schlemiel. Pitch-perfect in his delivery and a strong singer, Weisberg elevates otherwise mediocre material and almost single-handedly carries the show. Ullet’s boozy old thespian, Marlowe, is a familiar theater stereotype, but like Weisberg, he never fails to get laughs even from antediluvian gags.
In fact everything about Enter Laughing — The Musical feels old, and usually not in a good way. This isn’t the timeless harum-scarum comedy of the Marx Brothers, but more like that amusing old uncle who keeps spitting out jokes until he finally gets a laugh.
Cast: Joel Brooks, Janet Dacal, Anne DeSalvo, Mueen Jahan, Gerry McIntyre, Sara Niemietz, Robert Picardo, Amy Pietz, Jeff Skowron, Nick Ullett, Noah Weisberg
Director: Stuart Ross
Playwright: Joseph Stein
Music & lyrics: Stan Daniels
Set designer: Evan A. Bartoletti
Costume designer: Leon Wiebers
Lighting designer: Neil Peter Jampolis
Presented by Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Music Theatre International