Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Moving on Down" (on Joseph Stein's and Stan Daniels' Enter Laughing)

moving on down
by Douglas Messerli

Joseph Stein (book, based on the novel by Carl Reiner), Stan Daniels (music and lyrics) Enter Laughing / Lovelace Studio Theater, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, California. The performance Howard Fox and I attended was a matinee on March 1, 2015.

What a vast difference 132 blocks makes in a life, more or less, proclaims the musical, Enter Laughing—based on the novel by Carl Reiner, the play by Joseph Stein, the film by Reiner and Stein, and the 1976 musical flop, So Long, 174th Street—concerned with the near-impossible transition from a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx to the symbolic center of Broadway theater, 42nd Street. Fortunately, this newly down-sized version of the Broadway work, with music and lyrics by long-time Reiner friend Stan Daniels, takes the whole issue with a great deal of self-parody; a bit like director Stuart Ross’ Forever Plaid, Enter Laughing: The Musical portrays itself as a fun-loving near amateur production—however professional and gifted are the members of the cast and accompanying musicians. 
      In the many ways this musical plays with serious theatrical and its own conventions, the audience is permitted to enjoy what becomes a (excuse the ridiculous pun in the style of the play’s humor) shalom-y-on-wry skit—an ingratiatingly witty genuflection to theater—without demanding any of serious Broadway musical’s pheasant and champagne excesses. Presenting itself as something close to pure Borscht-belt comedy, this production allows us to sit back and heartily laugh at the exaggerated caricatures it presents us without a tinge of guilt. Well, not without guilt exactly, but certainly without worry about whether or not we should allow ourselves to giggle over David Kolowitz’s aggrandizement of self and his sexual appetites as he clumsily negotiates his way out of becoming his mother’s favorite druggist son.

     Kolowitz (Noah Weisberg) hasn’t a clue—or even cue—of how to act, let alone of what theater is about; all he knows is that he loves it, and is willing to do nearly anything to pursue a career in what imagines is a quick ascent to the top where he might live out his sexual fantasies with fellow movie stars such as Dolores Del Rio, Jean Harlow, and….every other film goddess of late 1930s and 1940s, the affairs of which his imaginary butler (Nick Ullett) raunchily sings (in John Gielgud-like waspish propriety) in “The Butler’s Song.” 
     Once in the hands of con-man Harrison Marlowe (also Ullett) and his nymphomaniac daughter, Angela (Amy Pietz), however, David is brought down to earth with a crash, forced to pay to perform and asked to shell out $10 (a fortune is those days) for a tuxedo in which to flaunt his acting failures. Some of the most wonderful comic moments in the musical occur while David attempts to strut the stage, leaping, flouncing, creeping, running, and collapsing in time to his ridiculous rhythms of David’s Ronald Coleman-like patter. He’s so bad that even Marlowe, the loquaciously rotten wordsmith behind the ridiculous farce in which David is trapped, is left speechless; but Angela is hot to trot with the man of her “dreams” (after all, she sings, he has a mouth, a chin, two eyes, some toes, and a nose).

     But meanwhile, back in the coldwater flat, trouble is brewing. Mom (Anne Desalvo) and Dad (Robert Picardo) have no intentions of parenting an actor! David’s mother sings of her dreams of having a pharmacological goldmine, and when she fails to convince David of that avocation, pulls out all the stops of motherly guilt in “A Mother’s Heart.” Dad even takes out a loan to send his son off to school early, but secretly, with David’s employer Mr. Forman (Joel Brooks), envies the younger generation’s desire to do nothing but “Hot Cha Cha.”

     David’s promiscuous imagination, moreover, is brought down to earth with his girlfriend next door, Wanda (Sara Niemietz), who, fearing that she may be left in the lurch of David’s plans for himself, feeds him her own lines of love and normality (“It’s Like” and “”Being with You”). Before long David, predictably, is confused, and, equally predictably, absolutely scared out of his wits the moment the stage lights hits his eyes; like a deer, he blinks in utter terror, recovering himself just enough to throw-out the play-with-a-play’s dreadful last lines before heading “down”—the only direction left for him—to Broadway (“So Long 174th Street”).

     It’s all been done before and far more successfully, but the Stein-Reiner version of Enter Laughing is so exuberantly sweet that there’s simply no way to hate it. Besides, under Stuart Ross’ clever direction and the tinkling piano keys of the noted accompanist Gerald Sternbach, this musical never pauses long enough to take itself seriously. Just when you might want to cry out, “Enough already,” a character beats you to the punch; when a song appears an inappropriate moment, the hero signals the singer “This isn’t the right time.” So the audience has little else to do but to sit back and laugh.

Los Angeles, March 3, 2015

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