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Theater review: 'How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying' on Broadway

March 27, 2011 |  5:00 pm

How to succeed 11 
Harry Potter as a triple threat? Let’s not get carried away. The sorcery of director Rob Ashford’s Broadway revival of “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which opened Sunday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, isn’t that potent.
 
But Daniel Radcliffe, the pint-sized wonder with the youthful fan base that could bloody eardrums with its boisterous adoration, is an honest-to-goodness trouper. Gleaming with young-adult stardom, he summons all the gusto he can muster for the challenge of playing J. Pierrepont Finch, the window-washer who schemes his way to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company using a self-help manual.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to turn back the clock on this 1961 musical, which is hampered by a dated book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert. Nothing ages faster than comedy, and the show’s episodic structure now seems as belabored as a sitcom plucked from a rusty time capsule. Anderson Cooper supplies the voice-over narration (following in the footsteps of Walter Cronkite, who offered his services for the 1995 Broadway revival starring Matthew Broderick), but there’s no getting around the creakiness of the writing.

How to scceed 12 Radcliffe gets an A for effort, but he doesn’t have the theatrical stature to pull together this choppy production, which like Ashford’s last Broadway outing, “Promises, Promises,” rollicks in the “Mad Men” era as though it were a costume ball with a gray flannel theme. Nostalgia is unreal, and so too are the overcooked antics here. Everything is just a little too calculated. When a routine lands — and many still do — the strain shows.
 
There’s much to enjoy in the glorious parade of Frank Loesser numbers — the authentic wit of the lyrics, the bubbly orchestral uplift. And Ashford’s hard-driving choreography treats the songs like showstoppers. One of the most aerobically demanding, “Grand Old Ivy,” pairs Radcliffe with John Larroquette, who plays company boss J.B. Biggley, in a dance that humorously accentuates the gaping height difference between the production’s two stars.

For those who have never seen “How to Succeed” — and with Radcliffe on the marquee you can be sure they’ll make up quite a large percentage of the audience — the musical must seem at once old-fashioned and au courant. The satirical perspective on corporate personnel is certainly as pertinent as ever. Loesser has a teasing ditty for every link in the chain of command (the best, for my money, is "Company Way," the mailroom anthem to playing it safe, robustly delivered by Radcliffe and Rob Bartlett). But all the romantic brouhaha with moony secretaries is beyond retro.

Rosemary (Rose Hemingway), the bright female employee who lights up whenever Finch is in the room, comes across as a lovely relic. There’s little attempt to individuate this amorous role. She sings “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” and Ashford, whose approach to acting is largely pictorial, takes her at her word.

Caricatures are indulged, not fought. Hedy La Rue (Tammy Blanchard), the va-va-voom vixen of the secretarial pool, is treated more or less as a sight gag. Miss Jones (an amusingly forceful Ellen Harvey), the efficient fielder of all of Biggley’s clandestine calls, offers a bellowing counterweight to all the husband hunters.
  
Catherine Zuber’s costumes may be the boldest element of Ashford’s production (though she gets carried away with some of the whimsical dresses.) The vintage look is given a contemporary gloss. Bud Frump (Christopher J. Hanke), Finch’s troublemaking rival, dons a pair of red glasses suitable for an Esquire photo shoot. The male executives swirl around in slim suits that highlight their athletic grace. Finch sports a natty electric blue bow tie.

The performers are all in such a flamboyantly presentational mode that they rarely make eye contact with one other. Larroquette, a multiple Emmy winner best known as Asst. Dist. Atty. Dan Fielding on “Night Court,” scores big laughs as the epitome of blind executive hypocrisy. But for all intents and purposes, he and Radcliffe could be acting their parts on a split screen. They only connect when the choreography forces them to, and even then Larroquette seems almost afraid of towering over or maybe toppling his diminutive costar. 
 
In addition to his patented boyish charm, Radcliffe possesses deft comic instincts. Every time Finch turns to the spotlight with a conspiratorial acknowledgement that the plan for advancement is working to perfection, the audience roared in hysterics.  His voice, pleasantly serviceable but not distinguished, worried me in his first number, “How to Succeed.” The singing improved as the show went on, but he’s no Robert Morse, who originated the role with so much musical comedy élan (as the 1967 film version wonderfully documents) that comparisons are invidious. But then this revival would very likely never have come into existence without the Harry Potter hordes. 
  
Looking into the crystal ball, I see fewer musicals and more dramatic comedies in Radcliffe’s future. He’ll never match Hugh Jackman’s versatility, but there’s no shame in being a likable double threat.

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Photos from opening night at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre

-- Charles McNulty in New York

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

Photos, from top:  Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. Bottom: Radcliffe and Tammy Blanchard. Credit: Ari Mintz

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