How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
March 31, 2011
He’s certainly got that grin of impetuous youth. Actually, it’s a grin that starts out surprised and quickly becomes more and more devilish.
The grins chart the course of the extremely hard-working Daniel Radcliffe’s J. Pierrepont Finch in Rob Ashford’s delightful yet mechanical revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Finch, or Ponty, as he likes to be called, is that eager beaver who works his way from window washer to the top of the World Wide Wickets Corporation with the help of a little guide book and a whole lot of luck. Not only does he rise to a vice presidency without really trying, but he also manages to win over the girl, the winsome secretary Rosemary, without even paying her any attention. But that’s fine, she has their life in New Rochelle already mapped out, and is more than happy to “bask in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect.”
As far as musical comedies go, this is the tops. Frank Loesser’s score is effervescent and Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert’s book is impeccably structured and, despite a healthy dose of light satirical misogyny, surprisingly timeless. Ashford displays a stronger grasp and trust of the material here than he did last season with Promises, Promises, which he also directed and choreographed. Among that production’s problems were a pair of miscast leads and too much dancing. While there’s little miscasting here (though the actors aren’t really natural fits for their roles), it is over-choreographed. In fact, the dancing is almost non-stop. The ensemble is more than up to the task, but it’s distracting to the world around them and the sterling dialogue and lyrics.
Ashford does, however, create a variety of nifty touches, including a football game ballet during “Grand Old Ivy,” a bonding session between Ponty and bossman J.B. Biggley (played by John Larroquette), and a fight between the co-workers for the very last cup of joe during the great number “Coffee Break.” He plants the show firmly into the 1960s, with expert period-sounding orchestrations by Doug Besterman, dance arrangements by David Chase, and pastel costumes for the ladies, with gray business suits for the men by Catherine Zuber. The set, a mod honeycomb designed by Derek McLane with equally pastel lighting by Howell Binkley, is a clever way of setting up the office’s worker bee mentality.
Not many actors would jump from one of the most successful film franchise of all time to Broadway, let alone a Broadway musical, and Radcliffe must be commended for making that bold choice. As he proved two years ago in Equus, he’s got stage chops. The voice is a bit thin, but he can hoof it like the best of them, and his characterization is fascinating. Here is a blank slate, trusting the book and making his own luck until he’s in over his head. And even then, luck carries him through so he can just enjoy the ride. Radcliffe’s not a natural for the role, but he’s so winning that he ranks on the list just under Harry Connick, Jr. and Kelsey Grammer as most impressive musical debuts.
Individually, the entire cast is quite strong, but what they collectively lack is chemistry (yeah, chemistry…oops, wrong Loesser show). The beguiling Rose Hemingway imbues Rosemary with a self-assured sexuality and has a very pretty voice, though she and Radcliffe lack that crucial spark. Radcliffe connects slightly more with Larroquette, who is delicious as Biggley and tremendous in his scenes with the superb Tammy Blanchard as his vamp of a paramour, Hedy LaRue. Blanchard’s Hedy is not a dumb bimbo, she’s a cunning Jersey girl, a smarter version of Snooki. Mary Faber has some very nice moments as the sex-starved secretary Smitty, Christopher J. Hanke pushes too hard for laughs in the genuinely comic role of villain Bud Frump, and Rob Bartlett, Michael Park and Ellen Harvey excel in their roles.
There isn’t a better eleven o’clock number to send the audience out high than “Brotherhood of Man,” and it certainly raises the roof off the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. While this production is by no means perfect, there’s a lot of fun to be had.