There’s a lot of history behind “Enter Laughing” by Carl Reiner. It started life as a novel by the very funny Mr. Reiner, as a fictionalized account of his life as a performer in New York City in the 30’s. It was then adapted into a stage play that launched the career of the seriously talented Alan Arkin back in the early sixties, which then led to Arkin’s first major film role in “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming”, also written by Carl Reiner. Then it was adapted into a film, which for some strange reason, did NOT star Alan Arkin, but instead starred an actor named Reni Santoni, who was seriously miscast and who then sort of just disapeared. But for sheer chutzpah, in the early 70’s, someone had the bright idea to turn “Enter Laughing” into a musical as a vehicle for then 44 year old Robert Morse, to star as the seventeen year old protagonist, in a renamed version called “So Long, 174th Street”. It lasted all of two weeks. For the most part, the book by Joseph Stein retained most of Carl Reiner’s original hilarity, but the score by Stan Daniels, who was one of the creative forces behind “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” at the time, was just sort of ok, and the combination of that, plus a star who was almost 30 years too old for the role, destroyed whatever chances the piece might have had. Well, 34 years later, the piece has returned, and in fine shape, at the York Theare Company, and there are two major reasons you should see it.
Number one reason is an actor all of 86 years young, George S. Irving, whose first musical was the original production of ” Oklahoma!” way back when. The second reason is a young actor by the name of Josh Grisetti, whose career should be off to a roaring start from the stunning work on display in this production. As far as Mr. Irving goes, he’s always been one of my favorite musical comedy stars. The first time I recall being mightily impressed by him was in 1973, in his Tony-winning performance in the John Gielgud-directed musical, “Irene” starring Debbie Reynolds. Irving was the out of town replacement for the divine Billy DeWolfe after DeWolfe died suddenly during performances in Boston. Since then, I’ve seen Mr. Irving in countless roles, but television viewers might best remember him from a series of White Owl cigar commercials in the 70’s, where his famous catchphrase was “We’re Gonna Getcha”. In the musical “Enter Laughing” (yes, they’ve gone back to the original source material title for this production), Irving plays a hammy, alcoholic acting teacher named Marlowe who gives the young protagonist, David, his first acting job in his shoestring acting company. Irving very nearly steals the entire evening with his showstopping second act number, “The Butler’s Song”, the lyrics to which just cannot be printed here. Suffice to say, it’s a fantasy number wherein David imagines himself bedding a number of glamorous movie stars starting with Delores Del Rio. I say Irving very nearly steals the entire evening, which he could have done, were it not for the sensational Josh Grisetti as the Carl Reiner stand -in, David. Grisetti is that every-once-in-a-while stage find, who, based on his work here, should be catapulted into the mainstream before long, much like Alan Arkin was in the orginal piece. The musical is running just a few more weeks, and I can honestly say, miss it at your peril, because I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so long or so continuously at the theater.
The new musical, “13”, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, is currently running on Broadway, and after seeing it, I’m still wondering who this pleasant little musical is meant for. The title certainly gives you no clue, when in fact, it refers to the age of everyone on the stage. A musical about the serious challenges facing kids just entering puberty? Kids living in, as one song puts it, “The Lamest Place In The World”? Centering on the hero, who’s parents are divorcing on the eve of his bar mitzvah? Yes. Yes And yes. So who is this musical really meant for? Granted, the score is peppy and tuneful and downright ingratiating. The jokes either zing! right by or fall flat on their face, like a lot of books for musical comedies. The kids, for the most part, are a talented bunch. So why did I feel so grumpy and out of place sitting through this? I think the reason is this-I’m not who this musical is meant for because I’m about 40 years older than its target audience. And therein lay the problem. It’s a musical meant to appeal to kids who truly can’t afford the adult prices being charged for a Broadway musical. It’s not “Spring Awakening”, a musical that adults will enjoy and respond to, and have been responding to for two years now. No, it’s a kids musical with a terrific score with lyrics that are made totally incomprehensible by a lousy sound system. But just how long does a musical about kids last on Broadway when the adults accompanying them are going to be dumbfounded by just how left out they feel when it’s all said and done? Sadly, my guess would be, not long. But we shall see.
Finally, a few thoughts. “What’s That Smell?”, a mini-musical playing at Atlantic Theater Company’s second stage on 16th Street is a pleasant 75 minutes to spend, especially if you’re into parody of the sort encouraged all these years by “Forbidden Broadway”. I’m still looking forward to the rest of Atlantic’s 2008-2009 season despite the fact that the subscriber tickets to the Broadway production of Atlantic founder David Mamet’s “Speed The Plow” are quite literally the worst seats in the Barrymore Theatre, relegating Atlantic members to either the last row of the orchestra or the extreme sides. THAT little bit of info wasn’t made available to Atlantic members before they signed on for this season or when they resubscribed, and I’m sorry, but I find that extremely off-putting, especially in light of the fact that tickets are available on TDF already. And where will those seats be located? Over at Playwrights Horizons, I have to ask what anyone could have been thinking before committing themselves to the mess that became their first show of the season, Nicky Silver’s “Three Changes”. The piece was impossible to decipher, boring as all get-out and needed more like 103 changes before ever being presented to an audience. Lets hope it’s the only misstep Playwrights makes this season.