A long and winding road has at last led a long-forgotten musical comedy gem from its blink-and-you-missed 1976 Broadway run to a delightfully nostalgic, laugh-out-loud hilarious, infectiously tuneful intimate revival at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts Lovelace Studio Theatre.
Based on Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel, Enter Laughing The Play had run over 400 performances back in the early ‘60s with a very young Alan Arkin as its star. Reiner himself then made his directorial debut when Enter Laughing The Movie hit the silver screen in 1967. Shouldn’t lightning have struck again in ‘76?
The story Reiner had to tell was a proven winner, the romcom adventures of young David Kolowitz, a machine shop go-fer with dreams of making it big in 1930s Hollywood over his parents’ objections (if not their dead bodies). Mama Kolowitz in particular objected to her sonny boy undertaking anything other than a career in pharmacy. After all, what Jewish mother wouldn’t want to trumpet the achievements of “My Son, The Druggist”?
Joseph Stein, who’d first adapted Enter Laughing as a play, wrote the musical’s book, which ought to have been a big plus as well. As for its songs, though composer-lyricist Stan Daniels was best known as a sitcom producer and scribe and this was his only musical ever, they are as infectious as any Jerry Herman, Jule Styne, or Jerry Bock show tune, with lyrics as clever and laugh-out-loud funny as you’d expect from the winner of 8 Emmys for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi.
So what went wrong back in 1976, and why do things go so right in 2015?
Well, it probably didn’t help that the novel, play, and movie’s easy-to-remember title got changed to the ponderous and eminently forgettable So Long, 174th Street, or that the musical was apparently told flashback style. Worse still, whoever produced So Long, 174th Street had the (not so) bright idea of casting 44-year-old Robert Morse as 20ish David. Eternally boyish Morse might have been, but really! What were they thinking? And perhaps the Broadway stage was just too grand a forum for a show as up-close-and-personal as David’s.
And so it was so long to So Long, 174th Street … and Enter Laughing The Musical might never have seen the light of day had the York Theatre Company not revived it in 2008, prompting a New York Times rave the diametric opposite of Clive Barnes’ 1976 pan.
May I now add my own WOW! to those that greeted Enter Laughing The Musical upon Re-Entry a few years back, it being harder to imagine a more delightful evening of musical comedy (with an emphasis on both music and comedy) than the show now playing at Beverly Hills’ most gorgeous new theater complex.
To begin with, the Wallis couldn’t have made a savvier directorial choice than Stuart Ross, who along with original Broadway book writer Stein (and some savvy “additional material” by Ross) brought Enter Laughing back to life at the York … and now brings his comedic gifts (and some bubbly musical staging) to Beverly Hills.
It’s hard to imagine any musical as non-stop uproarious as Enter Laughing, and never more so than in its brilliantly slapstick climactic Opening Night sequence, one that would do Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, or indeed Carl Reiner proud.
But there are laughs galore along the way, many of them prompted by Daniels’ inspired lyrics as performed by a couldn’t-be-more-sensational cast.
David’s girlfriend Wanda (the girl-next-door appealing—and big voiced—Sara Niemietz) and her beau exchange “I Love You” similes (“It’s like … it’s like … like a trip to the stars”) interrupted by unreliable 1930s phone service … or lack thereof.
David confesses to best friend Marvin (Jeff Skowron, nerdy perfection) that he can’t stop undressing girls “With My Eyes.” (“I might be a pervert or a sexual deviator. Day and night my brain is like a non-stop burlesque theeayter.”)
“Older woman” Miss B (Broadway’s In The Heights’ sweet and sexy Janet Dacal) and David duet “You,” a showstopper with lyrics borrowed from literally dozens of the era’s biggest romantic hits. (“When they begin the beguine, let’s face the music and dance.”)
When David is offered a half-price “scholarship” to a local Grade Z “School For The Dramatic Arts,” its native Brit director Harrison Marlowe (a deliciously posh Nick Ullett) instructs him to forget about “acting” and simply “Say The Words.” (That way “no one will guess what an ignorant, asinine, stupid illiterate schmuck you really are.”)
Later, Ullett scores the evening’s biggest surprise-attack laugh when, as David’s fantasy manservant, he sings “The Butler’s Song,” which has the oh-so-proper Englishman informing none other than “Miss Garbo” herself that his employer is too busy banging every glamorous star in the Hollywood firmament to give her the time of day.
David’s leading lady, who happens to be Marlowe’s horny daughter Angela (Amy Pietz, simply divine), reveals the impossibly high standards she has for “The Man I Can Love”. (“I can’t love just any man. He must be alive.”)
David’s ever-kvetching mom (the oy-vey-riffic Anne DeSalvo) extols the virtues of a degree in pharmacy in “My Son, The Druggist.” (“I get a thrill with every prescription he’s filling.”) And Mama DeSalvo’s “If You Want To Break Your Mother’s Heart’ could be every Jewish mother’s anthem. (“I’m just the one who spent seventeen hours of horrible, miserable, murderous, tortuous, ghastly, excruciating agony giving you birth.”)
“Hot Cha Cha” alows David’s dad Morris (the marvelous Robert Picardo) and his boss Mr. Forman (the equally marvelous Joel Brooks) to display their own song-and-dance showmanship while bemoaning the “lazy, undisciplined, irresponsible, wild and crazy … the kids of today.”
The entire cast (which also includes the dynamic duo of Mueen Jahan and Gerry McIntyre in multiple roles) celebrate the accidental meeting of male fingers and female chest in “You Touched Her.” (“He could actually feel her bazoom and not her brassiere.”) “Boy Oh Boy” has everyone responding with pounding of breasts to David’s imagined funeral. (“Boy oh boy, would there be a wailing, not to mention a gnashing of teeth.”) The company’s female contingent join voices to grouse and groan about the opposite sex in the bluesy “Men.” (“They sugar-lump you, then they dump you. They’re all the same!”)
Yes, indeed, this is a cast that any Broadway stage would be proud to welcome, and if I haven’t yet mentioned David himself, it is simply because, cliché be damned, the best must indeed be saved for last, and Noah Weisberg is absolutely the best thing since chopped liver, the busy (and oh so likeable) young Broadway, film, and TV vet delivering one of this or any year’s most tour-de-force triple-threat star turns, and never more so than whenever Weisberg’s David starts “acting.” (That young Mr. Kolowitz believes the stage direction “Enter laughing” is a line of dialog is just the start of an out-and-out brilliant comedic performance that would do Carl Reiner himself proud.)
L.A. musical theater treasure Gerald Sternbach once again makes his musical directorial magic, tickling the ivories in the production’s pitch perfect onstage three-piece band, completed by Albie Berk on drums/percussion and Adrian Ross on bass.
Enter Laughing The Musical looks absolutely terrific on the Lovelace stage, scenic designer Evan A. Bartoletti surrounding the action with a faux proscenium (based on James Morgan’s original set design) with property master Jeff Maloney coming up with one terrific 1930s prop after another, costume designer Leon Wiebers taking us back to the glamorous (and not-so-glamorous) ‘30s, Neil Peter Jampolis lighting everything to perfection, and sound designer Philip G. Allen providing a pitch-perfect mix of amped voices and instrumentals
RL Campbell is production stage manager and Kristen Osborn assistant stage manager. Casting (and this is—hallelujah!—an entirely L.A.-based cast) is by Bruce H. Newberg, CSA and Beth Lipari, CSA.
Jennifer Paulson Lee is associate director and choreographer. Lisa D. Lechuga is associate scenic designer, Maggie Lima assistant costume designer, Lisa McKinnon costume supervisor, and John A. Garofalo associate lighting designer.
So Long, 174th Street may have flopped big-time back in 1976, but Enter Laughing The Musical flies sky-high in 2015 at the Wallis. You might not already be laughing when you make your way into the theater, but guffaws are guaranteed from start to finish. And I promise you. If you’re anything like this reviewer, you’ll Exit Smiling … and have a great big grin on your face the whole ride home.
Lovelace Studio Theatre, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills.
February 17, 2015
Photos: Kevin Parry