Thursday, April 28, 2011

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, at Broadway's Hirschfeld Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

The Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, starring Daniel Radcliffe, put a smile on my face from beginning to end. Judging by the rapturous applause, I wasn't the only one having a great time.

Before the show I took in the Harry Potter exhibit at Discovery Times Square. It was great to see props and costumes from the movies and it's clear why Radcliffe engenders so much goodwill - he's the orphaned boy wizard we've watched grow up. We want him to do well.

And he brings oodles of boyish charm to J. Pierrepont Finch, a window-washer who uses luck, pluck and a how-to manual to climb the corporate ladder at the World Wide Wicket Company. Sporting an eye-catching blue bow tie he sings sweetly, dances up a storm and speaks with a flawless American accent.

I'll admit that Radcliffe isn't the most powerful singer, which detracts a bit from "I Believe in You." But not every role requires a big Broadway voice - think David Hyde Pierce, who was wonderful in Curtains and doesn't have one either. What's important is that Radcliffe creates such an engaging character.

Plus, director/choreographer Rob Ashford has put together the splashy, exuberant production numbers around Frank Loesser's catchy score that I love in a Broadway musical. "Company Way," "Coffee Break," "Paris Original," "Grand Old Ivy" and "Brotherhood of Man" were so much fun.

And this isn't a one-man show by any means.

John Larroquette, who towers over Radcliffe, has great chemistry with him as gruff company president J.B. Biggley. Rose Hemingway was delightful as Rosemary, the secretary who falls for Finch. She sounded so lovely, especially in "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm." Christopher J. Hanke was hilarious as Bud Frump, Biggley's nephew and Finch's nemesis. And Ellen Harvey steals every scene as Biggley's secretary, Miss Jones, who succumbs to Finch's flattery.

How to Succeed is one of only eight musicals that have received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Based on a satirical guide by Shepherd Mead, a bestseller in the 1950s, it was adapted for the stage by Abe Burrows, Willie Gilbert and Jack Weinstock. The show debuted on Broadway in 1961 with Robert Morse, who also starred in the movie.

And I think it holds up pretty well, despite being a bit dated. Of course the women at the World Wide Wicket Co. are relegated to the secretarial pool. And how many people get the joke that the person hired to head the advertising department has the initials BBDO?

But How to Succeed still works because the songs are memorable and the characters are fun, the dancing is phenomenal and in many ways its send-up of the business world resonates 50 years later. (CNN's Anderson Cooper provides the authoritative voice of the how-to guide's narrator.)

This is the story of a young man who, despite not going to the proper school or having the right connections, still rises to the top through, okay, stretching the truth a bit here and there. With so much charm and a face like a choirboy, can you really hold that against him?

In some ways it's a uniquely American story - it speaks to our belief that with enough gumption anyone can make it, no matter how humble their background, even a window washer like "Ponty" Finch.

Radcliffe has already proved his mettle as a stage actor - I thought he was absorbing in Equus, as a troubled teenager who blinds horses. He could have sat at home in London and counted his Harry Potter earnings but he chose to take on the challenge of a Broadway musical.

I admire him for getting out of his comfort zone. I hope he continues to take risks and that they're all this incredibly entertaining - and successful.


JK said...

I couldn't agree more, Esther!

Welcome back!


Esther said...

Thanks, Jeff! Happy we agree on this one. I'm so thrilled I got to see such a terrific production of a classic musical. I have a lot of catching up to do theatre-wise!