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Chicagoland newcomers, vets shine in Marriott's anachronistic 'H2$'

Before Trump University modeled its curriculum on Shepherd Mead‘s 1952 book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the how-to satire became a bestseller, took seven 1961 Tonys, including Best Musical, and was awarded the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

With music and lyrics by the esteemed Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls) and a fast-paced, biting book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, the plot is centered on the ambitions of window washer J. Pierrepont Finch, who, with the help of the book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, trades in his coveralls and squeegee for a business suit and briefcase in a stratospheric climb to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company. It takes him roughly 2-1/2 hours, with intermission.

The musical, with successful, separate Broadway runs featuring Matthew Broderick and Daniel Radcliffe, is perhaps even better in the 21st century by adding that touch of anachronism to its outing of corporate idiocy. The blatant sexist, nepotist culture of World Wide Wicket allows modern audiences to simultaneously laugh and shake its collective head at the things previously tolerated (think Mad Men) while feeling a certain satisfaction at the improvements our society has made.

Director Don Stephenson‘s late summer/early fall production at Marriott Theatre is a quickly-paced, masterful restaging introducing newcomers to the Chicagoland stage alongside a number of the region’s most beloved musical theatre veterans. Melissa Zaremba‘s immensely creative, original choreography (“Coffee Break” is an absolute audience favorite) is complementarily brilliant.

New York’s Ari Butler, in his Marriott debut as lead J. Pierrepont Finch, is understatedly terrific. The full resonance of his voice isn’t quite realized until Act 2 with “I Believe in You” and “Brotherhood of Man,” but before that, he delights with “Company Way” and “Grand Old Ivy” (with Terry Hamilton as boss J.B. Biggley). His boyish charm, dance ability and comedic timing make him a full-fledged triple threat with many starring roles on his future resume.

Another newcomer, costar Jessica Naimy as “Ponty’s” love interest, the corporate secretary Rosemary Pilkington, simply wows in her Chicagoland and Marriott debut. Playing the part while quietly eschewing the day’s norm, Naimy’s Rosemary is downright Hillary Rodham-esque, helping her Bill’s climb to the top. This young star’s verve, twinkle, talent and beauty combine to enthrall. From her “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm” to “Paris Original” and, especially, her reprise of “I Believe in You,” Naimy’s voice is strong, pure and gorgeous.

In addition to Hamilton, the dynamic leading couple is supported by a cast of stars in their own right. Highlights abound.

Felicia Fields might just have the best moment in the entire show during “Brotherhood of Man.” Marya Grandy solidifies her spot among the best contemporary musical theatre actors on Chicago area stages with her performance as head secretary Smitty; she’s spot-on hilarious. Alex Goodrich joins Grandy in that group, delivering another uproarious performance as sniveling nephew to the boss, Bud Frump. Indeed this entire H2$ cast of supporting roles, singers and hoofers is made up of leads from this and other stages, making Stephenson and Zaremba awfully lucky creative heads.

If there are nits, they’re individualistic. For this reviewer, it’s that the whole piece feels a bit too dated…which it is. For all the work done to keep this show moving at a crisp pace, it’s still a long, old-fashioned musical with more reprises than surprises; sometimes Loesser is more.

All said, Marriott’s late summer/early fall production brings some of the best regional talent together to look back on just how far we’ve come. And it succeeds like nobody’s business.