review: how to succeed in business

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How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, Willie Gilbert
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford
Featuring John Larroquette, Daniel Radcliffe, Tammy Blanchard
Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street
March 27, 2011  — ongoing
production web site:  http://www.howtosucceedbroadway.com/

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 31, 2011

Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. Photo credit: Ari Mintz.

The 1960s palette and fashion silhouette of the business world — familiar to those of us who lived it, familiar to the younger among us from films like Catch Me if You Can and television shows like Mad Men — is brought dreamily and sweetly to life on the Hirshfeld stage in the new revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Come for the set by Derek McLane that is fun and functional and true to the period and an homage to musicals past (at moments Company with a 1960s stylistic overhaul, at times you’ll see other influences).  Come for the choreography by director Rob Ashford that will send you swinging and singing into the streets, as all grand old musicals are intended to do.  Come for a chance to see familiars from television (e.g. John Larroquette) and movie juggernauts (our young and talented Daniel Radcliffe).  Come to see Broadway pros who will stun you with small moments (Ellen Harvey).  Come for the recorded narration provided by Anderson Cooper (delivered with the perfect balance of humor and earnestness).  Refresh your memory of the score, and get over to the Hirshfeld.

This 1961 story is an urban myth with a gossamer book, originally crafted at the time of business world self-help books penned to help the young and ambitious get ahead.  It may not seem so from a 50 year remove, but this musical originally was a satire with a bit of teeth.  Dale Carnegie‘s 1936 How to Win Friends and Influence People was a bible to some, and the American economy was expanding in this post War period with no end in sight.  Billy Wilder‘s 1960 The Apartment addresses some of the same corporate culture themes, from the perspective of a man already ensconced, doing what he can to get ahead (lending his apartment to executives for extra curricular activities).  Pre-Hippies, pre Vietnam, pre-flower power, this musical captured a world view in comedy and song.  J. Pierrepont Finch (Daniel Radcliffe) is a window washer with dreams, honed by a self-help book sharing the show’s name, of making his way into a company that produces something that remains a mystery.  Chance meetings, fortuitous conversations, being charming, looking busy in ways intended to catch the eye of the right people in power — all strategies familiar to anyone working in any organization anywhere.  How To Get Ahead 101.  Along the way our window washer moves through the ranks to join the Board of Directors.  We don’t believe the fairy tale but we’re along for the ride.

And for the most part, this is a ride that enchants.  (I shall resist drawing comparisons between established Mad Men characters and some characterizations in this revival cast, but know that many will occur to you, especially among the secretarial pool.)  Finch meets secretary Rosemary (Rose Hemingway) who becomes his love interest (but of course — first sight and all).  Nepotism hire Bud Frump (Christopher J. Hanke) becomes Finch’s antagonist attempting to thwart his rise (the primacy of ability versus privilege or position by chance versus position by birth isn’t clarified — yet recall that no one really *does* anything or *produces* anything in this fictional company).  J.B. Biggley (John Larroquette) is the hapless president of the company who knits to calm himself down and develops a liking for young Finch.  Biggley’s secretary Miss Jones (Ellen Harvey) will remind many of Edie  Adams‘ executive secretary Miss Olsen in The Apartment, and Harvey almost steals the show in a few tunes.  Tammy Blanchard channels Lina Lamont (Singin’ in the Rain) and Miss Adelaide (Guys and Dolls) and Lola Fandango (Where the Boys Are) in Hedy La Rue, the cigarette girl who joins the secretarial pool and eventually marries the Chairman of the Board.

“I Believe in You” is delivered as a pep talk by Finch to himself in the rest room mirror with shadowy fellow corporate drudges listening, scheming behind him —  quietly enchanting.  Other tunes provide visual fun and surprises.  “Coffee Break” with the great line “If I can’t take my coffee break .. something within me dies” is a particular favorite for this confirmed caffeine addict.  Tap dancing secretaries in “Cinderella Darling” convince their sister Rosemary to stay on with her rising executive, even though he’s ignoring her, as she embodies their dream of marrying big.  Washes of color.  Small performance moments. Stage images.  All the resources available to this show are on stage and then some.  All that said, if none of this has convinced you to visit this production — “The Brotherhood of Man” is the definition of eleven o’clock number in this staging.  You will say later that you were there, I promise you.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 1, 2011)

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