Marriott tackles dated jokes head-on -- and succeeds
★ ★ ★ ½
How does a theater succeed at producing a period piece like "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" when so much of it is deemed to be politically incorrect today? The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire's exceedingly polished and purely entertaining answer is to get a comedy master like director Don Stephenson to heighten and play up the original satire of this 1961 hit Broadway musical.
Rather than run away from all the show's glaringly pre-feminist gags and jokes involving husband-hunting secretaries and sexually leering businessmen, Stephenson unapologetically tackles all this dated material head-on. And like modern-day viewers of AMC's acclaimed 1960s-set TV drama "Mad Men," much of the hearty response of "How to Succeed ..." comes from audiences comparing how much society has (or hasn't) changed in 50-plus years.
Of course, it helps that Stephenson has the sturdy comedy framework provided by songwriting mastermind Frank Loesser ("Guys and Dolls") working in tandem with playwrights Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert to adapt Shepherd Mead's satirical source book. Stephenson's impeccably cast production for the Marriott is filled all around with cartoonish character standouts who can gloriously sing, which is vital since a weak link would harm the tunefully crazy musical comic confection that "How to Succeed ..." needs to be.
Making a strong Marriott debut is Ari Butler as the charmingly manipulative window-washer-turned-corporate-climber J. Pierrepont Finch. Butler cleverly shows the calculating clockwork of Finch's ambitious business mind in action as he dutifully follows the voiced-over advice from the title self-help book (voiced by the late composer's daughter, Emily Loesser, in a nice family touch) to advance in the fictional World Wide Wickets Company.
Butler is nicely matched by Jessica Naimy as the ambitious secretary Rosemary Pilkington, who spots in Finch powerful partner potential both in business and in matrimony.
But it's often the wacky characters surrounding Finch and Rosemary who end up hogging all the comedy spotlights, which are precision-lit with swirling verve by lighting designer Jesse Klug. Terry Hamilton crafts a hilariously idiosyncratic portrait of powerful company president J.B. Biggley. He's marvelously matched in humorous style by Angela Ingersoll as Biggley's vivacious and vacuous mistress Hedy La Rue, whose sexual allure is comically enhanced by the revealing outfits of costume designer Catherine Zuber (her astute period work from the 2011 Broadway revival starring Daniel Radcliffe has been re-created at the Marriott).
Alex Goodrich's nepotistic Bud Frump is a constant villainous delight, while Felicia P. Fields truly wows with her roof-raising scat singing as head secretary Miss Jones in the big Act II "Brotherhood of Man" production number. There's also invaluable support work by the likes of Marya Grandy as the sarcastic secretary Smitty and Jason Grimm as the barking personnel director Mr. Bratt.
"How to Succeed ..." also stylishly moves well with Melissa Zaremba's impressive choreography, which finds acrobatic flourishes in big numbers like the exaggerated tone-setting "Coffee Break" or secretarial typewriter tap dancing in "Cinderella Darling."
Set designer Thomas M. Ryan's colorful Mondrian-inspired work is the perfect accent to the modernist international architecture look of the show (though there is a designer clash between his and Zuber's corporate logos).
At its debut, "How to Succeed ..." was a subversive show that wowed critics and crowds so much that it became one of the few musicals of the 20th century to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Nowadays, the second-act script weaknesses and backward views of working women have tarnished that initial gleam.
Nonetheless, the current Marriott revival makes a very strong case to temporarily turn back the clock for the show.