‘How to Succeed’ earns a corner office for Marriott
The rapid-fire clatter of fast-fingered secretaries pounding away on manual typewriters fills the air. Pastel shirtwaist dresses are all the rage. And both men and women wear hats.
More to the point, observing all this from his window-washing perch outside a high-rise Manhattan office building is a young man with the formidable name of J. Pierrepont Finch. Take note: He has put down his squeegee and is carefully reading the pages of the get-ahead manual from which “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” – the hit 1961 Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows musical – derives its title.
Welcome to the corporate culture of the 1950s – America’s boom years – when ambition and upward mobility are paired with a “go along-to-get along” mentality essential to any successful ladder climber.
At the Marriott Theatre, where the show is receiving a winningly zany, high energy production, director Don Stephenson (who just happens to be married to Loesser’s daughter), and his altogether invaluable choreographer, Melissa Zaremba, have remained wholly true to the manners and mores of the story’s time period, and have happily resisted any effort to warp its essential spirit by trying to make it politically correct by current standards.
In doing so they have captured the built-in satire of the musical’s book (by Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert), and Loesser’s fabulous lyrics. And as cartoonish as some of the attitudes might be, they are fully recognizable, for while computers have replaced typewriters, people have remained much the same. And so has much of corporate life, from the incompetence at the top, to the “keep your head down” approach to remaining employed. As for the sexual politics (remember, this was the Playboy era), some of the male behavior has now become actionable, and women have taken their place in the pecking order. But a looker is still a looker.
From first moment to last, this production moves with the sort of nervousness and anxiety that permeates any competitive workplace. And the terrific cast captures this state of perpetual insecurity at every turn by means of Zaremba’s sharply stylized, sophisticated yet antic movement. Loesser’s lyrics about “the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,” may be confidence building, but Finch, like everyone else around him, is in a state of perpetual panic and coverup. Even an empty coffee urn at coffee break time is met with a near meltdown.
The story chronicles the remarkable career ascent of Finch (the winningly graceful Ari Butler, who nails his character’s blend of shrewdness and guileless amiability), whose rise at the World Wide Wicket Company is nothing less than meteoric, and whose determination to succeed often circumvents the equally determined romantic/domestic goals of the fetching and determined secretary, Rosemary Pilkington (Jessica Naimy is an easy charmer), who spots him from the start.
Of course much of Finch’s success has to do with the formidable incompetence of all those around him. That includes the president of the company, J.B. Biggley (a wonderfully zesty Terry Hamilton), who secretly knits to calm his nerves, who instantly bonds with Finch over college sports (in the hilarious number, “Grand Old Ivy”), and who dallies with the impossibly curvaceous (and in her own way, intensely career-driven) Hedy LaRue (Angela Ingersoll, a most winning comedienne who definitely knows how to move). Finch’s only real nemesis is Biggley’s nephew, Bud Frump (the sublime Alex Goodrich), a devious but moronic twit who resents this outsider, but is destined to spend his life in the mail room.
Marya Grandy is spot-on as the veteran secretary who knows how the game works (even if she can’t quite make it work for her), and Felicia P. Fields, as Miss Jones, Biggley’s protective executive secretary, stops the show when she leads the cast in a swinging rendition of that feel-good anthem, “Brotherhood of Man.”
The costumes, based on Catherine Zuber’s designs for the 2011 Broadway revival of the show (which starred Daniel Radcliffe) are perfection, down to the mass-produced “Paris Original” that generates great laughter. And those Marriott regulars – music director Ryan T. Nelson and conductor Patti Garwood – have made sure the hip, witty, character-driven score by Loesser (who had already achieved Broadway immortality a decade earlier with “Guys and Dolls”) reveals all its punch and winking edge, and does justice to songs bearing such laugh-inducing titles as “A Secretary is Not a Toy” and “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm.”
All in all, a perfect example of “How to Succeed.”