September 17, 2008

"Enter Laughing" May Leave You Smiling

“Write what you know” is the advice teachers used to give beginning writers. No one seems to have taken that more to heart than the wordsmiths who worked in the writers’ room for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” They famously included Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner, whose 1958 memoir “Enter Laughing” has been turned into the new show Enter Laughing: The Musical that opened at the York Theatre Company last week.

Reiner and his colleagues have told the same coming-of-age story so many times over the years that most of us know it as well as we know the ones about our own kin. In these tales, a gawky but endearing young man yearns for a career in show biz, has obstacles thrown in his way (often by his well-meaning but straitlaced Jewish family,) circumvents them by apprenticing himself to a theatrical blowhard with a heart of gold and in the end, gets his big break and entry into the glorious fraternity of show people.

Even though their TV show was helping to kill it off, the Caesar boys longed for the old Tin Pan Alley-era of entertainment that was already beginning to fade into memory. I have a fondness for that world too. So I didn’t mind at all indulging in Enter Laughing’s smile-inducing double scoop of nostalgia.

The show is the latest in a string of adaptations of Reiner’s fond look back at his star-struck youth. The original book was a bestseller. A 1963 stage version played for 419 performances and made a star of Alan Arkin, who won a Tony for playing Reiner’s fictionalized version of his younger self. But a 1967 movie that featured José Ferrer, Shelley Winters, Elaine May, and Don Rickles in supporting roles fared less well and a 1976 musical, So Long, 174th Street, with a 44-year-old Robert Morse playing the ambitious teen, flopped, lasting just six performances.

Now, a name change and a terrific cast lead by Josh Grisetti, a young newcomer with the appealingly loose-limbed and rubber-faced demeanor of a natural comedian but whose only previous claim to fame had been playing in the Las Vegas company of Spamalot, has rescued the show. Kind of.

This new production of Enter Laughing is funny and it’s fun too. But it helps if you’re of a certain age. The showstopper is performed (marvelously) by the 85-year-old George S. Irving, who made his Broadway debut in the original production of Oklahoma, and its references are to such erstwhile screen hotties as Hedy Lamarr, Joan Crawford and Constance Bennett. The entire score, by Stan Daniels, the late legendary sitcom writer, producer and director who apparently studied at the Mel Brooks School of Songwriting, is filled with witty lyrics set to jaunty but lightweight tunes.

Still, director Stuart Ross, who created Forever Plaid, knows how to keep a crowd-pleaser moving. Music director Matt Castle not only plays the piano and leads the tiny but able band but takes an amusing acting turn as well. The rest of the cast—which includes the husband and wife team of Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry from the old “L.A. Law” TV series—is energetic too. Together, they all create the kind of evanescent entertainment that might have made great sketch material for the old Caesar show. And if you’re nostalgic for that kind of an evening then this show could be your show of shows.

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