Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Marriott's 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying' Aims to Please -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru October 16

Because my dad was a big Broadway fan who had an affinity for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I was likely aware of the 1961 musical within the first decade of my life.

I don't recall having seen it in my childhood, whether onstage or the 1967 film version, nor having any of its songs forever ingrained, but the title has always been familiar to me.

But since the turn of the century, when I started going to theater quite frequently, including seeing well over 250 different musicals, not only haven't I seen How to Succeed..., I have never even noted a Chicago area production being mounted.

This seems a bit odd, for although clearly not a musical with contemporary fame to rival My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, etc., the original Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying did Best Musical plus six other Tony Awards (and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama) and ran for about 3-1/2 years. So it was a pretty big hit way back when.

And a 2011 Broadway revival starring Daniel Radcliffe--of Harry Potter fame--and John Larroquette seemed to go over pretty well and ran for more than a year. But it didn't spark a National Tour.

So although it seems I should have seen How to Succeed... sometime over the past 40 years--and assuredly could have benefited from the lessons promised by the title--I hadn't.

But the opportunity finally presented itself at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire last Wednesday night, and even though I would be leaving on a Labor Day vacation early the next morning, I felt I shouldn't pass up the chance.

With music & lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book partly by his Guys and Dolls collaborator (along with Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert), Marriott's rendition is an enjoyably spirited affair under the direction of Don Stephenson, with fine choreography by Melissa Zaremba.

Also an actor I once saw as Leo Bloom in an early National Tour of The Producers, Stephenson is married to Emily Loesser, daughter of Frank and the offstage (presumably prerecorded) voice of a book called How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying that serves as a playbook for the show's protagonist.

As the musical set in the early 1960s begins--contemporary when written, co-opting some Mad Men-type stylings now--J. Pierpont Finch (Ari Butler) is a young Manhattan window-washer who aims to put the book's teachings to the test within World Wide Wickets, beginning by literally bumping into the company president J.B. Biggley (the always fine Terry Hamilton).

Finch soon gets a job in the mailroom alongside Biggley's dim-yet-conniving nephew Bud Frump
(Alex Goodrich) and even before he expedites his way up the company ladder, "Ponty" is pursued by a pretty secretary named Rosemary (Jessica Naimy), whose "catch an exec" dreams of life in suburbia are fodder for her pal Smitty's (Marya Grandy) rejoinders.

Also factoring in are other company executives (Neil Friedman, Jason Grimm and others) and a floozy named Hedy La Rue (Angela Ingersoll), hired on due to a relationship with the married Biggley.

There are a good number of laughs as Finch ascends though the company due to a combination of playing the right cards, kissing the right ass and being within a company where no one really knows what they're doing--or what anyone else is.

Without quite matching the mastery of Loesser's Guys and Dolls score, How to Succeed... is rather tuneful throughout, beginning appropriately enough with a song called "How to Succeed."

"Coffee Break" is a lot of fun, abetted by some quite imaginative choreography, while "A Secretary is Not a Toy" seems to genuinely (if a tad glibly) rebuke sexual harassment, albeit in a show that retains some rather dated sexism. To wit, the closing song--and among the most tuneful--is "Brotherhood of Men," an ode to the fraternity of the gender that makes up all of the company execs.

On opening night, the primary cast members and sizable ensemble were all engaging and well-sung, even if no one individually amazed me. 

Likewise, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is a quality musical that I'm glad to
have seen; its brightly-hued reading at Marriott seems to do the material proper justice and it's easy to imagine the venue's vast subscriber base being well-smitten.

(Set designer Thomas M. Ryan and costume designer Catherine Zuber merit mention, the latter particularly for a nifty twist to abet the song "Paris Original" about Rosemary's desired outfit for a corporate dinner.)

But I have seen many classic musicals I consider far more classic. Though everyone here is really trying--in a positive connotation--and more than not, the show does succeed, it just doesn't feel that vital.

Especially as, despite feeling dated, there is still relevance--some in the jibes at the corporatocracy; others less intended given the continuation of glass ceilings and harassment faced by many women, as well as there being far too few minorities in corporate suites--How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying may have been better presented in the present tense (particularly if a few tweaks were allowable).

Why couldn't some of the executives be women? Why couldn't some of the secretaries be men?

As it stands, it's a fun show I think nearly everyone may like, but despite being long-lost not one that I quite loved.

No comments: