Janine LaManna, Josh Grisetti, and George S. Irving
in Enter Laughing
(© Carol Rosegg)
Janine LaManna, Josh Grisetti, and George S. Irving
in Enter Laughing
(© Carol Rosegg)
While contemporary musicals like Fela!, Passing Strange, and Spring Awakening are pushing the envelope, Enter Laughing, now at the York Theatre, is a show that fills the envelope to overflowing, offering a consistently clever and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny score by Stan Daniels and a richly amusing and tightly written book by the legendary Joseph Stein. Add in sensational direction by Stuart Ross and a top-notch cast, led by newcomer Josh Grisetti, and this production has winner written all over it.

It just goes to show you what a little revision (or maybe a lot?) can do, because this musical, based on Carl Reiner's semi-autobiographical play Enter Laughing, actually flopped on Broadway in 1976 under the title of So Long, 174th Street. Now, it may be the best little musical you will see all year -- new or old.

Set in the Bronx in the 1930s, it tells the story of 17-yer-old David Kolowitz (Grisetti), who is as sex-crazed as he is intent upon becoming an actor. His misadventures in both arenas drive the tightly constructed plot and provide ample opportunities for Daniels' songs to spring out of the action and send the story into musical theater overdrive. Grisetti not only has a wonderfully appealing, awkward charm; he sings well, moves well, and has exquisite comic timing. In short, the kid is a keeper.

The 14-person cast also features television and stage favorites Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker as David's perpetually worried parents, Janine LaManna as the sex-starved lead actress in the small time theater company where David makes his hilarious acting debut, and Emily Shoolin as his main romantic partner, Wanda. (The actress proves to be an ingénue with comic grit and a great set of pipes.) Other outstanding supporting players include Gerry McIntrye, Allison Spratt, Robb Sapp, and Ray DeMatis.

But the real coup in the casting department is getting George S. Irving to recreate the role of theater school owner Harrison Marlowe, which he first played to critical acclaim in the original Broadway production. Even more memorably, he figures in one of David's fantasy sequences, and Irving gets to bring down the house singing the hilarious "The Butler's Song," the crown jewel of a cascade of comic numbers.

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.