Monday, March 28, 2011

REVIEW: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Review of the March 19 matinee preview performance. At the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, 40 minutes, with an intermission. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, John Larroquette, Rose Hemingway, Tammy Blanchard, Christopher J. Hanke, Rob Bartlett, Mary Faber, Ellen Harvey and Michael Park. Choreography and direction by Rob Ashford.

Grade: A+

The 50th anniversary revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying lovingly embraces its old-fashioned-ness like a new A-line dress or three-button suit. It would be really easy to compare this to last season’s Promises, Promises – both share an early sixties look at American Big Business, romance in the workplace and a director/choreographer in Rob Ashford. How to Succeed could very easily have become Promises, Promises II. But leave it to the frequently underrated Ashford to breathe new and completely original life into this somewhat quainter, less edgy show by pretty much leaving it alone.

What can you say to scorn the masterful book by the late great Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willy Gilbert or the sharp, witty and tuneful score by Frank Loesser without imposing modern Broadway thinking on it? Sure, you could say that there is some fat to be trimmed – a reprise or two could go, or maybe dump the whole Pirate Dance business. And you might say that, without a big splashy act two opener, the second act takes awhile to get going. But the truth is, there-in lies the charm of the show. Sure you could make those cuts, but you’d also lose much insight into the main characters – the reprises all act like internal monologues one might expect in a Sondheim show, minus the really ugly darkness, and by letting us SEE the disaster of the whole treasure hunt sequence, the payoff that effects every single character up to the rousing finale is all the richer. And so Ashford gives it all to us – overture, entr’acte and exit music – without apology. And besides, if you can sit through three plus hours of death and “miserables,” surely you can sit still for a half hour less of good old American backstabbing, trickery and ass-kissing fun, right?

True, in an era of Ponzi schemes, bank defaults and an economy that is stalling, the show has considerably less bite than it might have 50 years ago. But make no mistake, the same ass-kissing, ladder climbing world of who you know getting you farther than what you know is still firmly in place. The biggest difference between now and then is that sexual harassment works both ways, what with the advent of the male assistant and the female executive. But the show is still vibrant and relevant. Of course, it really helps that Ashford gives the entire piece a sense of urgency and smoothly fitting interlocking pieces. Basically, his staging is a visual for how many American companies run, from mass production of “wickets” to the advertising that convinces us we need "wickets" in all kinds of varieties, to the equally machine-like quality of life at the executive building in New York City. Each employee is a wicket of sorts, selling wickets and generating ways to sell even more wickets. How does Mr. Ashford do this? Through his collaboration with the creative team and the marvelously complicated simplicity of his thrilling staging.

"Coffee Break": Christopher J. Hanke and
Mary Faber (center) fight over the last cup

Everyone on the creative team is clearly on the same page – so nice for a change, lately. Derek McLean’s silver monoliths of sixties-sleek high-rise design both dwarf and shelter the worker bees of the World Wide Wicket Company, with its honeycomb shape and interlocking look. Even the scenery moves – albeit faster – with that old sixties style: set pieces slide in and out on small trucks, and large set pieces descend from the flies and wings. Nothing too flashy like computerized projections, and we are not bombarded with visual clutter. Howell Binkley has used a similarly conventional lighting design, with pin spots lighting those small honeycombs, and by lighting the set with different colors that suit both the mood and the location changes throughout the “building.” The stage setting really only shifts back and forth, in and out, though it gives off a more complex air, but McLean and Binkley make it simple to understand where we are at all times. And the subtlety of Catherine Zuber’s costume design is a fun nod to the hierarchy of “the company,” too. You have to love that all of the executives wear the same suits and ties, interchangeable clones such as they are. Only those who are actually climbing to the top or are at the top get any variation to that suit and tie. The best is the nod to the fact that the secretaries not only run the company, but they do so as individuals. Each secretary is adorned in bright colors and in a variety of business appropriate dresses and accessories. As it should be, all of the design elements serve to accent, but not overwhelm, the action of the story or take away from the sharply drawn characters. That is left to the aforementioned thrilling staging.

The entire show is stuffed with superb dance sequences, but three really stand out. There has already been much press and social networking about “The Brotherhood of Man” and it is certainly well-deserved. It is sharp, eye-pleasing, and clearly difficult to execute, which the company does with breathtaking intensity and precision. To be honest, I really wanted to stand up when it was over; it was THAT good. The second number which stands out for me is the title song, which opens the show and sets a very high bar for the rest of the evening. It is an intricate set of athletic, yet mechanical moves, as slyly repetitious as it is varied. It also looks like it is as much fun to do every night as the rest of the show does. And finally, there is perhaps the most complex number of the show, “The Company Way,” a tribute to toeing the company line. You’d have to go back to early Susan Stroman to find such a complicated fusion of dance moves, the use of a variety of props, and the reliance of movements of each dancer that are often completed blindly – they often can’t even see each other, and still don’t drop a piece of mail or miss a step. It is wonderful, too, that the audience recognized the feat they just witnessed by rewarding it with a cheering, extended ovation.

Daniel Radcliffe and Rob Bartlett (center)
and the mailroom boys play it"The Company Way"

Mr. Ashford’s dances are, in fact, a microcosm of the entire production. Every actor in the show has a character name, and each has created a complete character, even the ensemble members relegated to the background. They are just as great as the above-the-title actors; you could move the background to the foreground and still see a stage full of characters with story lines. And just like the big business that the show satirizes, each “company man and woman” is a small cog that keeps the big wheel turning. In short, everything about the way this revival is put together serves each element separately and as a whole.

One of the great pleasures of being able to see Broadway shows frequently is that you get to recognize a lot of the gypsies, who go from show to show, season after season. How to Succeed is no exception, and in an ensemble that is 100% stand-out quality, five of my favorite dancers are up there, often in featured spots: Charlie Williams, Megan Sikora, Cameron Adams, Ryan Watkinson and Marty Lawson. This revival scores on every level because of such deft staging, almost unequalled detail and a uniformly well cast company of triple-threats. If it weren’t for a lack of lines or stage time, one could certainly argue for a single company bow. That is just how amazing these people are.

Some semblance of fanfare was given to the casting of Anderson Cooper of CNN fame as the Narrator. Certainly a fun nod to the “journalism” of Shepard Mead’s book from which Cooper narrates. His straight forward, analytical sounding delivery is perfect for the satire of the piece, and he gets several laughs throughout the evening.

If you know anything of big business, you know that it is the secretaries that really are the backbone of the company. That is certainly the case here, with Ellen Harvey as Miss Jones, career steno-gal who has climbed her way to the top as Executive Secretary to the big cheese at WWW. Harvey’s hang dog, goofily serious countenance generates enough giggles, but her brusque delivery and subsequent softening make her a crowd-pleaser. (Her solo in “Brotherhood” dazzles with its extreme range.) And there is Mary Faber as the been-there-seen-it-all secretary, Smitty, who knows she’s almost to the point where she needs to get out with a husband or end up another Miss Jones. Considering the range of Ms. Faber’s career thus far (she just left American Idiot of all things), it should come as no surprise that this wise-cracking but lovable character is well within her abilities. It is especially nice to see her use her considerable comic chops in every scene she’s in. Considering how much direct time she spends with the two leads in the show, it says something that she still makes such a strong impression. “It’s Been a Long Day,” a trio for Smitty, Finch and Rosemary, is a perfect example of Faber’s dazzling presence.

"It's Been a Long Day": Rose Hemingway,
Mary Faber and Daniel Radcliffe

Michael Park, late of As the World Turns, reminds us that he is also a song and dance man in his hilarious turn as Bratt, head of personnel. In other versions of this show, I’ve seen the character played with broad, lascivious strokes. But Mr. Park takes a more subtle, and ultimately, more realistic approach to the role. Even as he admonishes the young executives to remember that “A Secretary is Not a Toy,” one can see that he is speaking from experience, and the only thing that keeps him out of that dog house is the constant reminder that he, like everyone else, is hanging on to that ladder of success by the merest thread. And so, as he blusters, huffs and puffs, and glad hands his way to the top, we see a Bratt who is still on the climb. Rob Bartlett, on the other hand, gets to use his subtle ways to show us a man on the rise and a man on top – he plays the dual roles of Mr. Twimble and Chairman of the Board Wally Womper. Audiences familiar with Bartlett’s long association with Chicago as Amos will recognize the woebegone, sad-eyed look that he uses to great comedic advantage in the mailroom scene, and he more than holds his own in the complicated “Company Way” number. And, even more a “type” as Womper, a self-made man, Bartlett pulls out all the stops, milking every last giggle out of his brief act two appearance.

Ponty and Hedy spend an uncomfortable
moment on the Excecutive Couch.

Every company has its ass-kissing pain in the neck and its much-gossiped-about tart; so, too, does the World Wide Wicket Company, with Bud Frump and Hedy La Rue, respectively, played by two of my favorite actors, Christopher J. Hanke and Tammy Blanchard. They also go with a more realistic, less cartoonish approach to their characters, letting their actions speak for themselves. In other productions I’ve seen, both characters tend to be overplayed stereotypes, which get really old, really fast. By taking the less is more approach, both actors allow the audience to get on their side, even as both have a great stake in ruining the fortunes of our romantic leads. Don’t get me wrong, every time Bud Frump gets taken down a peg, you are happy, but you are also looking forward to what he has up his sleeve next. A lot of that is owing to Mr. Hanke’s considerable and natural boyish charm. It is hard to outright hate a guy just for knowing what buttons to push. Likewise, Ms. Blanchard hits all the obvious notes as the dumb office bimbo (as mandated by the script and tradition), but she does so with a sort wink-wink “surely you know I’m not THAT dumb” delivery, and with genuine heart, too. You root for her from the minute she takes the stage.

TOP: Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette
BOTTOM: "Grand Old Ivy"

Considering the length and breadth of his acting career, it is somewhat astonishing to think that this is John Larroquette’s Broadway debut! I am pleased to report that his comic timing, slow burn and naughty but nice delivery, so great on Night Court and other projects, are as sharp and excellent as ever here. Very few actors have the sharp retort/slow burn combo down like this guy, and he knows how to get a laugh to be sure. But can he carry a Broadway musical? Absolutely! OK, so he’s more Rex Harrison than John Raitt in the singing department, but he can carry a tune without putting the audience on edge, and does so fully within the confines of his well-rounded, fully-developed character. Can he dance? You betcha. He blends in perfectly with the rest of the cast when he needs to, and the man has a gift for sight gags and physical comedy, too. This is most in evidence in the side-splittingly funny, and surprisingly large production number “Grand Old Ivy.” I’ve never seen this number done so BIG before, and with Mr. Larroquette front and center throughout, it becomes another jewel in a whole crown full of them. The audience went nuts at the end of this one, like I’ve never seen before.

Rose Hemingway as
Rosemary Pilkington

Every once in a rare while, you have the great fortune of witnessing a newcomer’s ascendance to the top of the heap. In Rose Hemingway, a Broadway star is born. This impossibly adorable young woman charms with her smile, draws you in with her lovely, heartfelt voice, and her magnetic charm and smooth sophistication sneak up on you and hold you in her grip. I’m telling you, each and every time she is on stage, she is the one you want to watch. What a voice! What a smart delivery! Her rendition of “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” is no anti-feminist manifesto. No, it is crystal clear that she can match Finch trick for trick, machination for machination. His goal may be the board room, but hers is the freedom to run a household, a family and a prize catch of a husband. In her care, it is clear that becoming a suburban housewife is not a step back for the women’s movement, but a definite choice of career. And that she plays off everyone around her so well speaks volumes for her natural and considerable talents. How many people get the opportunity to debut on Broadway with such heavy hitters in every scene? You’d never know she was a “newbie” if you didn’t read it in the Playbill. Keep her name in mind, she is going far. Trust me.

Daniel Radcliffe as J. Pierrepont Finch

Of course, the marquee draw here is one Daniel Radcliffe, worldwide movie superstar and all around good guy, here playing the anti-hero, a guy who we shouldn’t like, but we can’t help but love, anyway. He is also the youngest to play the role on Broadway, and this works especially well in a modern world where 20-somethings invent Facebook, clawing to the top without apology and a giant measure of ego. J. Pierrepont Finch is an opportunistic, often lucky and always in the right place at the right time kind of guy. We all know people like this – life seems so easy for these jerks, right? In Mr. Radcliffe’s take on the role, we can see a guy who is working hard at getting to the top; it seems that just his own impatience is what is keeping him from doing it the old-fashioned way, and who can’t relate to that? His boyish good looks, winning smile, and coy asides to the audience ingratiate the character to the audience, because, let’s face it, we are already smitten with the actor who has grown up before our eyes. Still, starring in effects-laden blockbuster films isn’t quite the same as live, every night in front of an audience Broadway performing. His turn awhile back in Equus proved that he was more than his famous film role, and is, in fact, a daring, risk-taking actor, and the next logical step would be a musical. And here he is. Can he handle the lead in a Broadway musical? In this role, absolutely! I mean, don’t look for him in RENT or a revival of Miss Saigon, but his singing voice is suited to this “actory” role just fine. A little thin in the upper notes, and perhaps still a bit nervous to sing in front of screaming fans, he doesn’t have much belting power, but he can carry a tune confidently, and is such a great actor that he makes any vocal shortcomings seem more like acting choices. (Apparently he saw Alice Ripley in later performances of next to normal.) And let’s just put it out there: the boy can dance! He is truly a good dancer, not just holding his own, but leading “The Brotherhood of Man.” And he is FUNNY - the make your sides hurt kind of funny. He all but stomps all over Mr. Larroquette in “Grand Old Ivy,” one of those numbers you know both actors look forward to every night. And Mr. Radcliffe also has the magical “it” factor; the ability to give and take, and to have a connection with every scene partner he has. His charisma is particularly noticeable every time he and Miss Hemingway have a scene. I can’t remember rooting for a couple as much as these two in years.

This revival is going to be hard to beat this season. It really succeeds in every way, and is one show you really should not miss.

(Production photos by Ari Mintz)

Full disclosure statement:  I received press comps for this show, with the objective of writing a review of the production.  It was very clear, for both myself and the production company, at all times, that I was under no obligation to write a positive review.  The above opinions are mine alone.
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1 comment:

  1. I saw this for the first time a couple of weeks ago and felt absolutely heart-warmed and in love with musical theatre. Radcliffe doesn't have the best voice on Broadway by any stretch of the imagination, but he is utterly charming, charismatic, funny and a joy to watch. I came out with tears of joy in my eyes and a yearning to be on that stage.


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