How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Previews began on February 26 for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” a clever and snappy revival that makes up for its mediocre book with talented directing and a brilliant cast. The show, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, is set to open at the Al Hirschfield Theatre on March 27. Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, it stars Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette, who both prove that they are capable of delivering on-stage as well as on-screen and whose enthusiasm powers the show from start to finish.
Radcliffe, known for his title role in the Harry Potter films, plays J. Pierrepont Finch, the main character, who was last portrayed on Broadway by Matthew Broderick in a 1995 revival. Finch is a young nobody who, with the guidance of a book called “How to Succeed in Business,” rises up the ranks of the World Wide Wicket Company. Using innocent manipulation and witty tricks, and perpetually sporting a bright-blue bow tie, he is soon in the good favor of J.B. Biggley (Larroquette), the company’s president. Anderson Cooper, meanwhile, punctuates the play as the prerecorded voice of Finch’s handy book (Walter Cronkite filled this role in 1995).
Taking place entirely within the company walls, with an ensemble of smartly-dressed office workers clad in business suits and A-line dresses, “How To Succeed” parodies the corporate atmosphere and gender roles of the 1960s. The song “Coffee Break,” for example, turns an everyday occurrence into a dramatic tango, with the cast throwing themselves at one another in despair because there is no coffee, while “A Secretary is Not a Toy” emphasizes the hypocritical men who can’t stop gawking at women in the workplace.
The cast is talented and lively, and is strengthened by Ashford’s clever choreography. While the show has everything from modern to tango to tap, the best dance numbers are those where the men bust out into cheesy moves, complete with high knees and bouncing elbows — a perfect match for Radcliffe’s innate awkwardness. The all-male numbers, “Grand Old Ivy” and “Brotherhood of Man,” both received lengthy applause from the audience, as did Radcliffe and Larroquette, a hilarious duo who bounce off of each other’s lines with perfect timing and whose comedic collaboration is only bolstered by their significant height difference.
Radcliffe nails his performance as Finch with a surprisingly melodic singing voice and a charming yet snarky demeanor. Equally talented is Larroquette, the booming, demanding boss with a penchant for knitting who Radcliffe always dupes. The secondary characters are also notable: Christopher J. Hanke plays the hilariously annoying antagonist Bud Frump, Biggley’s tattletale nephew who everyone hates, and Rob Bartlett plays both Mr. Twimble and Wally Womper, oversized “company men” with great accents.
If “How to Succeed” has any shortcomings, they are not the actors’ but the book’s, which fails to develop its characters successfully. Romances fluctuate inexplicably; Finch doesn’t notice Rosemary, played by Rose Hemingway, until, suddenly, he is in love (and jumps on the couch in happiness, a possible reference to Tom Cruise’s famous stint on Oprah). The same goes for Biggley and his mistress, Hedy LaRue (Tammy Blanchard), a relationship that is given little depth until the song “Love From a Heart of Gold” makes their love suddenly explicit.
The ending is also problematic, as Finch ends up becoming chairman of the board of directors, while the antagonist Bud Frump ends up a window-washer — Finch’s job before beginning his corporate rise. This conclusion undermines the “lesson” of the previous scene, “Brotherhood of Man,” in which Finch gives a speech about humanity and the unimportance of social rank.
The message of the musical is thus confusing and morally skewed, and the characters, while funny, have no real background. But the cast makes the most of the script, delivering an energetic performance and, perhaps most importantly, enjoying it.