Theater Review: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
At the end of October I was lucky enough to see the Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, starring Daniel Radcliffe and playing at the Al Hirschfeld theater. I love musical theater, Harry Potter, and Al Hirschfeld’s art, so this was a real treat, and I’m very grateful to the two friends who brought me along with them.
Daniel Radcliffe (who is called D-Rad in my head) does an excellent job playing the eager, enthusiastic, ambitious young wannabe-businessman J. Pierrepont Finch. His smaller stature works for him here. He’s shorter than everyone else, but it fits with the shiny-eyed image of the “new kid.” He literally looks up to John Larroquette. (The voiceover narration of the book for which the musical is named is provided by swoon-worthy Anderson Cooper.) Finch’s ambition means he’s a rather distracted love interest, and Radcliffe does that well, too.
I saw Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway in Equus during the winter of 2008, so I already knew that he’s a very athletic and energetic stage performer. In How to Succeed, he throws himself (figuratively and physically) into all of the dance numbers, and because he’s half the size of all the other men on stage it seems like he’s working twice as hard. The Harry Potter movies and Equus showed me how physical he is, but I still wondered: Can Daniel Radcliffe dance? The answer is, yes, yes he can. His singing is good; he can definitely carry a tune and he hits all the right notes, but he does lack the strength of more trained singers. However, his charm, spot-on 1960s-American-stage accent, and enthusiasm more than make up for it. When he’s on stage, you forget he’s Harry Potter. Hell, you forget he’s BRITISH.
John Larroquette is the other “star” in the cast. He plays J.B. Biggley, the president of World Wide Wickets, the company in which Radcliffe’s Finch has decided to work his way up. Now, I grew up watching John Larroquette on Night Court. (I never had any idea what was going on, but I watched it every day and it still made me laugh.) As a kid I thought he was funny and slightly scary, because he played a lot of “mean” roles back then, and he’s very good at doing a gruff tone of voice. In How to Succeed, he switches from gruff and commanding to silly and hilarious on a dime. His timing is spot-on.
Female lead Rosemary Pilkington is played by Broadway newcomer Rose Hemingway. When she sings, her strong, beautiful voice, infused with humor and the appropriate emotions, fills the theater, and makes up for the less strong singing voices of the male leads. All of the women have fantastic outfits in an assortment of candy colors, with super-cute matching character shoes. (As for the men, I’ve never seen so many lycra business suits in one place.) Rosemary always wears bright pink and I LOVED her outfits. She’s a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it, luckily for Ponty. The chemistry between them is fine, probably a little stronger on Rosemary’s side, but Finch’s character is distracted by ambition, so it works.
Lest you think the rest of the cast fades into the background, fear not. The side characters are clearly played by seasoned stage actors. Biggley’s secretary, Miss Jones, played by Ellen Harvey, has a very strong stage presence, and commands your attention every time she’s in a scene – especially the last one. Rosemary’s friend Smitty (Mary Faber) humorously provides the advice that her starry-eyed BFF needs. Mr. Ovington, the new VP of Advertising (Cleve Asbury) has a very small, but very funny role. And Christopher J. Hanke, who plays Finch’s nemesis (and Biggley’s nephew) Bud Frump, steals the scene whenever he’s on stage, doing asides with the perfectly cheesy drama so inherent in this type of show. The actor is clearly a cute guy, and I could actually see him doing well in the lead role, if they weren’t so intent on casting movie and TV stars. (Darren Criss takes over for Daniel Radcliffe for a short time, followed by Nick Jonas.)
The buxom Hedy LaRue is another scene-stealer. Played by Tammy Blanchard, her warbling Judy Garland-inspired tones and the way she totters drunkenly across the stage drew lots of laughs. I also appreciated how you never felt she was being taken advantage of. She’s in control of her life and her choices, and she’s definitely not the bad guy, even when it seems like she might be. Hooker with a heart of gold, indeed.
The set design is amazing. The pieces move smoothly on and off stage, creating multiple levels and layers for characters and dancers to travel through, as well as multicolored patterns. The props are minimal, but the moving set pieces really do a lot to help create the spaces. My favorite was Finch’s office, which is as multifaceted as his character.
The choreography is ambitious and high energy – but not the way American Idiot was high energy! There are a lot of crazy lifts, flips and slides. (And a tap number! A musical can always win me over with a tap number.) In the first scene I thought the movements were a little odd, but they fit the kind of goofy, slightly aggressive nature of the characters. It’s clear that the choreographer asked a lot of the dancers, and they deliver.
Ten years ago I saw a performing arts high school production of How to Succeed in California. My cousin was in the chorus. I can’t remember if I’ve seen a film version, but I might have because many of the songs were familiar. Overall, the play is lots of fun, and I would definitely see it again. If you like “Spectacular Spectacular” musicals with a lot of glitz and a high cheese-factor, go see it.
Darren Criss took over for D-Rad this week. I’m hoping to get rush tickets to see him in the role, as well. Beau Bridges takes over the role of J.B. Biggley, and in a couple weeks Nick Jonas will take over as Finch.
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