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Musical “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” July 5, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Musical.
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As a professional actor, Daniel Radcliffe gets full marks for boldness.  In the span of five years, he has morphed from being an apprentice wizard in the Harry Potter movies, to a horse-obsessed teenager in a psycho-drama stage production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus.  His latest attempt at breaching the boundaries is in the Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Al Hirschfeld Theatre,  8th Ave. & 45th St., New York) playing a mailroom upstart who weasels his way through a corporation to become chairman of the board.

How to Succeed is by far the most demanding.  It not only tests his dramatic, but also his musical and dancing skills.  He has demonstrated that he can hold an elusive melody together without being out of tune, and he is clearly an agile dancer with a good sense of timing.  Nevertheless, his star value as a teenage heartthrob is not enough to make him credible for the role of J. Pierrepont Finch.  But then, since when has credibility been important in a Broadway musical?

Although Frank Loesser’s parody of the chicanery in the corporate world of the 60s now appears somewhat dated, there is still some truth in the premise that many achieve corporate advancement through scheming and mouthing platitudes corporate leaders like to hear.  Radcliffe’s boyish looks and handsome innocence work against him in a role that requires cunning and manipulation.

The story is simple enough, in fact somewhat facile.  Window cleaner J. Pierrepont Finch (Radcliffe) slavishly follows the advice of a how-to manual on corporate success, and manages to find his way into the mailroom of the World Wide Wickets corporation by exploiting chance encounters with secretaries to key executives.  Once inside, he uses a range of counter-intuitive tactics and manipulative schemes to get ahead.  In a classic tactic of advancing by retreating, as in Sun Tzu’s Art of War, he turns down the offer to be head of the mailroom in favour of Bud Frump, the nephew of J. B. Biggley (John Larroquette), the company’s president.

It is not only through pure sleight of hand that Finch gets ahead.  He does his research and has a great knack for good timing.  Knowing that Biggley is quite proud of his alma mater, the Grand Old Ivy, and knits to relieve stress, he allows Biggley to find him in the office on a Saturday looking as if he had been there working all night.  Finch exploits this rare face time alone with Biggley and lets on that he is also a graduate of the Grand Old Ivy and knits.

After advancing to be head of advertising, he embarks on a disastrous promotional event that causes havoc, trouncing the company’s share price.  He appears in front of the board of directors and takes full responsibility for the debacle.  Insinuating that the idea for the promotion came from Bud Frump (Christopher J. Hanke), he shifts part of the blame.  He implores the chairman not to make a scapegoat of anyone as “all men are brothers”.  Wally Womper (Rob Bartlett) the chairman, whom Biggley’s mistress Hedy La Rue (Tammy Blanchard) has snared, miraculously hands over the reins to Finch.

Radcliffe’s diminutive stature against Larroquette’s towering presence, exploited fully in frog jumps in the song “Grand Old Ivy”, is otherwise awkward.  Aside from this, the cast generally works well together.  The rotund Rob Bartlett, doubling as the head of the mailroom and Wally Womper the chairman, does an outstanding job.  Bud Frump is too slick to be frumpy, and not nearly dumb enough to be running to his mother for help all the time; nor is Tammy Blanchard’s Hedy La Rue empty-headed enough as the dumb blonde mistress of Biggley.

Musically, How to Succeed is nothing to write home about.  With the exception of “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”, “The Company Way” and “Grand Old Ivy”, the melodies are contrived and not very memorable.  Several numbers, however, do allow the cast to showcase some nimble choreography.  “The Company Way”, with boxes flying everywhere and action taking place on stage and on the mail sorting table, demands precise timing.

The staging is quite remarkable.  The main backdrop is a steely see-through catacomb that doubles up as split-screens for simultaneous action in different rooms of the office.  It opens up as sliding doors to the side of the stage.  Office desks slide on and off the stage on tracks.  Costumes are also quite imaginative, reflecting the fashions of the time and fit for the occasion.

How to Succeed is a slick production of a somewhat dated script, with very good choreography, passable music and clever staging – reasonable entertainment for an afternoon nevertheless, as long as you temper your expectations.

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