"Enter Laughing," Carl Reiner's semi-autobiographical 1958 novel, has had nearly as varied a career as its author. Playwright Joseph Stein ("Fiddler on the Roof") turned it into a Broadway play (1963), a film (1967), a Broadway musical that famously flopped (1976) and then, with director Stuart Ross, a successful off-Broadway musical (2008), which is now at the Wallis Annenberg Center in its West Coast premiere.
Its provenance may suggest a theatrical zombie, kept alive long after its prime and repeatedly forced on an unreceptive public. Although "Enter Laughing" is undeniably a product of its era, wringing juice from seemingly withered stereotypes -- Jewish mothers, Jewish shopkeepers, girl-crazy young men, sexy secretaries, pretentious actresses -- the jokes still work.
The story, about a Jewish boy in the Bronx in the 1930s who follows his heart into show biz through minor contrivances and trumped-up obstacles, serves as an unobtrusive setting for Stein's sparkling dialogue and Stan Daniels' songs, nearly every one of them a gem.
The script is an acting company's dream: All the characters, even the most minor, get turns in the spotlight. It's a pleasure to experience comic writing of this quality, directed and performed with such enthusiasm and skill, even if the material has not yet quite found its ideal expression.
Noah Weisberg is thoroughly winsome as the star-struck and lusty assistant at Foreman's Machine Shop who dreams of a future in which random passersby and the pope alike speak admiringly of "David Kolowitz, the actor." When his buddy Marvin (Jeff Skowron) shows him an ad in the paper, David can't resist sneaking off to audition, although he knows his parents (the adorable Anne DeSalvo and Robert Picardo), his boss (Joel Brooks, a gloomy but kindly mensch) and girlfriend Wanda (lovely Sara Niemietz) will disapprove.
In a delightful twist on the typical rags-to-riches story, David turns out to be a terrible actor. He blows his tryout for low-rent, alcoholic impresario Harrison Marlowe (the truly wonderful Nick Ullett) by mistaking a stage direction, "Enter laughing," for dialogue. Lucky for David, Marlowe's ingenue daughter, Angela (Amy Pietz), thinks he's cute and persuades her dad to give him a try. Lest this seem an implausible stroke of fortune, Angela reveals unflatteringly low standards in the wickedly funny torch song "The Man I Can Love," in which she petitions fate for somebody with rare qualities such as a nose, a spleen and skin.
David goes on to have a few narrow brushes with disaster, scheduling a date for two girls at once, getting guilted by his mother into attending pharmacy school, forgetting his tuxedo on opening night. But these are easily averted.
The jokes and the witty numbers ("The Butler's Song" brings down the house) don't feel quite big or splashy enough to distract us from the low stakes. Choreography (by director Ross) is minimal, perhaps because the sleek set by Evan A. Bartoletti, while fitting nicely in the intimate Lovelace Studio Theater, provides little elbow room. And for some reason, the performers are all miked, which makes them sound canned. I almost expected a laugh track.
The production has plenty of delicious ingredients, but they might taste fresher if they weren't so highly processed.
"Enter Laughing -- The Musical"
Lovelace Studio Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills.
8:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 3:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays.