Climbing the Musical Ladder…One Song at a Time
Climbing the corporate ladder of big business is infinitely smoother when accompanied by one of Composer & Lyricist Frank Loesser’s irresistible, toe-tapping show tunes. They say that nothing recedes like success, and it is true with the 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which, save for Loesser’s sprightly musical accoutrements, is now something of a dusty relic. I need hardly remind readers how much has changed since 1961. When was the last time you could purchase dinner for two for under $4 anywhere? Abe Burrows’ once razor-sharp satire is now so dated it can best be described as quaint and antique.
Our charming anti-hero J. Pierrepont Finch begins his meteoric and ruthless rise from rags to riches by opening up a book (translation for 21st Century readers: Tablet) that promises instant results by following a series of helpful tips. Education, experience and ability are inconsequential when the right look and a carefully planned smile can go much further. Gleefully subversive, the musical revels in bold stereotypes and rampant sexism as it takes whimsical aim at America’s rabid lust for immediate gratification. Is it any wonder that Finch feels momentarily defeated by his lack of progress after working at World Wide Wickets for a whole week?
Taking his own tip from the song “The Company Way,” Director and Broadway vet Don Stephenson plays it safe in The Marriott Theatre’s efficient, slick and predictable revival. It follows a proven strategy that warns “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” and Stephenson doesn’t try. He makes no apologies for the lack of political correctness, breezily playing it as a two and a half hour joke, albeit with intermittent laughter. This conventional approach is notable following a convention-busting revision of another 1960’s musical chestnut, “Man of La Mancha” on the same stage, to say nothing of the boldly progressive “Spring Awakening” earlier this year. This “How 2” will undoubtedly be appreciated by the Marriott’s older, tradition-minded audience members and those who enjoy the occasional look back at an era before iPads, cell phones, texting and other modern electronic “conveniences”.
Director Stephenson adheres to a fast and furious pace that barely allows the performers time to breathe let alone give the audience time to laugh. The fine Chicago actor Terry Hamilton appears to be wound so tight as “old moneybags” J.B. Biggley that he seems in danger of busting a gasket or a wicket. No wonder the poor fella relies on knitting (the 1960s’ answer to Valium) to soothe his nerves.
In his Marriott debut, Ari Butler looks and sounds every bit the dashing scoundrel known as Finch, although there isn’t much of the innocent seeming underdog in him to truly endear him to anyone. Jessica Naimy’s flirtatious secretary (read Administrative Assistant) Rosemary hurls herself so aggressively at him it is a wonder Finch doesn’t demand an order of protection. This is a game of survival of the cleverest, so calculated co-dependency is the closest thing we will get here to true love.
Alex Goodrich is such a comedic treasure we very nearly wind up rooting for his over-entitled and obnoxious boss’ nephew Bud Frump as we do for Finch. Given the prodigious talents of both Goodrich and the splendid Marya Grandy as the leading lady’s requisite gal pal it seems a shame that Smitty and Frump only share one number together (the addictive “Coffee Break”). Angela Ingersoll provides further titillating distraction as a living sex toy. Jason Grimm, Brandon Springman and the formidable Felicia Fields all lend fine support among the 20-strong company. Quite interestingly, the self-help instructional guidance is provided by a pre-recorded Emily Loesser, daughter of the show’s composer/lyricist and wife of Director Don Stephenson. They are proof that old-fashioned show biz nepotism is all in good fun.
Although a great deal has changed over the half century since this musical first showed audiences “How to…,” the sheer lunacy of corporate America is as much a laughing matter today as ever. Corporate bailouts anyone? There are still executives no doubt spending sleepless nights sending out emails about the excessive amount of emails going out of their offices. We still have mindless decisions made by inept committees, although we’re not sure if they are actually human or automated. By the time the next revival of “How 2” rolls out it may in fact be cast entirely with robots. I just hope they can be programmed with a small measure of the vast talent that Chicago area audiences often take for granted.