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Theater review: 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying'

May 13, 2010 |  1:00 pm
How to succeed cover

“How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” is justly famous for its original Broadway cast (Robert Morse, Rudy Vallee, Charles Nelson Reilly) and its trove of prestigious awards (including the Tony for best musical and the Pulitzer Prize). But this 1961 blockbuster, which re-teamed “Guys & Dolls” composer-lyricist Frank Loesser and author-director Abe Burrows, deserves to go down in history for definitively disproving George S. Kaufman’s theorem that “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.”

The show ran for years in the gray flannel era that has come raging back into fashion thanks to Jon Hamm and his dirty martini brethren on the TV series “Mad Men.” But as borne out by the strenuously playful Reprise Theater Company revival, which opened Wednesday at the Freud Playhouse, it’s Loesser’s songs, with their biting burlesque of corporate chicanery, that ensure the work’s eternal relevance.
 
The book, which Burrows revamped from an earlier effort by fellow authors Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, hasn’t aged as well. It’s not that the tale has lost any sardonic steam. (Audiences today will certainly have no trouble appreciating the jaded view of office politics.) But those clever numbers — sometimes mocking, sometimes mooning, often a little of both — are separated by mountains of dated shtick.

How to succeed 11 I confess there were times when I was wishing for a concert version. But maybe that’s because director Marcia Milgrom Dodge is so eager to capture a bygone style of comic acting — call it the Jerry Lewis School — that the high jinks can seem derivative even when the performers are scoring laughs.

Still, this is a huge undertaking with a lot of worthwhile talent in the mix. (Dodge’s acclaimed Broadway staging of “Ragtime” has put her in contention for a directing Tony this year.) And although this revival of "How to Succeed" raises question about Reprise’s mission (is it now tackling humongous classics with limited resources that would be better applied to forgotten gems of a more manageable size?), let’s not belabor the point that if comedy is to transcend nostalgia it has to find its own unique route. Reverent irreverence is an oxymoron.
 
Josh Grisetti brings a lovely voice and a nerdy dapperness to the role of J. Pierrepont Finch, the window washer whose dream of becoming a high powered executive is fueled by the self-help book that gives the musical its title. The principles of this treatise are intoned by Ed Asner, whose voice exhorts young Finch to find just the right firm for his vaulting ambition, preferably one that’s “big enough so that nobody knows exactly what anyone else is doing.”
 
Welcome to the World Wide Wicket Company. (Scenic designer Bradley Kaye conjures a simple playpen of colorful if slightly monotonous geometric shapes.) This kingdom of suits is ruled by J.B. Biggley (John O’Hurley), the obtuse president who’s smitten by blond bombshell Hedy LaRue (Melissa Fahn), a secretary obviously not hired for her dictation skills. And the organization’s resident pest is Biggley’s nephew, Bud Frump (Simon Helberg on a demonic scooter), who phones his mother whenever he suspects Finch is going to be promoted over him. 

The situation is winning, but if it weren’t for such standout numbers as “A Secretary Is Not a Toy,” “I Believe in You” and "Brotherhood of Man,” the plot — a succession of sketches, really — would seem interminable. Music director Darryl Archibald and his soaring orchestra are forever rescuing the work from its incipient doldrums.

The look of the characters, costumed by Kate Bergh, could hardly be more vivid. But all the facial mugging and pratfalls that Dodge encourages through her direction and choreography aren’t half as delightful as the sight of Mr. Twimble (Michael Kostroff) and Finch performing the “The Company Way,” that celebration of the self-serving wisdom of toeing the party line. 

Rosemary (Nicole Parker), the infatuated secretary who fantasizes about keeping Finch’s dinner warm at their future home in New Rochelle, is rather two-dimensional, but when she joins Finch in the romantic ballad “Rosemary” she bursts into full, radiant life. And when office mate Smitty (a pungent Vicki Lewis) coaxes the would-be love birds to grab a meal together in “Been a Long Day,” the brisk wit of the lyrics provides a refreshing change from the silly speech impediments and comic strip excesses of a cast desperate to get a rise.
 
Maybe there’s a handy instructional volume somewhere that can teach directors how to excel at comedy without having their actors strain their slapstick muscles. In the meantime, fans of the musical can bask in the effortless mirth of Loesser’s score.   

-- Charles McNulty

follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 23. $70 to $75. (310) 825-2101 or www.reprise.org Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Related:

Marcia Milgrom Dodge: A Tony nominee's new challenge

Photos: Top: Josh Grisetti and Melissa Fahn. Bottom: John O'Hurley and Fahn. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

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