Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Theater Review: "Enter Laughing" worth a few giggles

By Hap Erstein

In 1976, Carl Reiner’s affectionate memoir of his earliest efforts to break into show business, Enter Laughing, was turned into a Broadway musical, redubbed So Long, 174th Street. Perennially boyish Robert Morse, then in his mid-40s, was miscast as teenage David Kolowitz — the Reiner character — and he became the scapegoat when the show closed two weeks later.

Fast-forward to today, when Avi Hoffman’s New Vista Theatre Co. dusts off the show, reworked under the play’s original title, hoping to open his season with an underappreciated gem. While it does yield some laughs, Enter Laughing has a painfully weak score and a predictable story line. The show is pleasant enough for the troupe’s Boca Raton audience, but it hardly lives up to Broadway expectations.

Most musicals fail because of problems with the script, but in this case that is the show’s strength. Joseph Stein has written a series of amusing skits, mostly lifted from his own original stage adaptation of Reiner’s story, first produced a decade before the musical. It is mainly old-fashioned comic stuff, but there is no denying its risible impact when David eventually makes his inept stage debut.

The songs, on the other hand, are musically primitive and lyrically simplistic. Although Enter Laughing traffics in fairly innocent humor, early on adolescent David sings a number in praise of breasts and in one of the show’s many fantasy sequences, a butler trills about David’s busy sexual schedule with a parade of screen stars.

The score is by Stan Daniels, who produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show and would go on to further television success with Taxi, leaving behind this sole foray into musical theater. There is occasional cleverness in his punch lines, even if you can see them coming from far away.

Newcomer Will Larche carries the show on his shoulders as David, a nice Jewish boy who yearns to become an actor, despite his guilt-slinging parents’ dream that he go to pharmacy school. Behind their backs, he lands a role with a dubious stage company, chiefly because he agrees to pay for the privilege.

Larche is capable enough, but has the show stolen out from under him by Gary Marachek as the troupe’s self-centered impresario. Also earning attention is Tony Award nominee Christa Moore (Gypsy, Big) as Marachek’s actress daughter, who croons a deadpan tune chock full of love song clichés.

Sally Bondi wrings some laughs from the stereotype of David’s manipulative Jewish mother, paired with Hoffman as the boy’s soft-spoken father. Hoffman also directs the production, which is scenically threadbare as well as musically, thanks to a thin, three-piece band led by David Cohen.

There are intermittent laughs to be had in Enter Laughing, but the show never really makes the case for why it needed to be turned into a musical.

ENTER LAUGHING, New Vista Theatre Co., West Boca Community High School, 12811 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Through Dec. 7. Tickets: $32-$40. Call: (888) 284-4633.

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